Hot tub crime machine

No, I did not make up that headline. That’s the real deal, word for word.

Shockingly, this did not happen in Florida.

Let’s break it down, journalism-style.

WHO: A female inmate, 34 years old.

WHAT: An escape from custody while she was getting booked on a drug possession charge.

She was later found hiding in the hot tub of a senior center, still wearing her orange jumpsuit from the jail.

WHEN: December 19, 2018. It took police hours to find her after the escape.

WHERE: Waverly, Ohio.

WHY: That’s the mystery.

Hiding in a senior center could make sense. It’s not like the cops have to show up there every Friday night to break up bar fights. But to make that plan work, you’d have to change your clothes and pretend to be a visitor, or a janitor, that sort of thing. You don’t hang out in the hot tub, where you’ll (a) get spotted by all kinds of people who (b) maybe want to use that hot tub and (c) will definitely call the cops when they see your orange jail gear.

And for those who don’t get it, the headline is a great riff on the movie HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, brought to you by the same geniuses now doing COBRA KAI.

However, this story is only the latest entry into the proud historical record of Criminals Who Stink at Hiding.

Florida Man takes the top spot in my book, with a man running from the police late at night getting the bright idea that he’ll hide in a pond. True, the 5-0 didn’t find him. That’s only because an alligator did first.

There are hundreds of other stories of criminals hiding in stupid places: in a dumpster, a manure lagoon, the lion cage at a zoo–you name it, some idiot has done it.

So I salute you, Hot Tub Crime Machine Woman–you get an F for achieving your goal but an A+ for style.

The secret truth about writing

When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?

What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted?

When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?

More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.

It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects. STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber? JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.

And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for absolutely nothing.

So what’s the problem?

College does you wrong

You won’t find the answers in college. Everybody teaches a tiny piece of writing, happy in their little silo, isolated from the rest of the world.

  • Journalism school teaches you writing to INFORM.
  • Rhetoric and speech classes teach you writing to PERSUADE, though hardly anyone studies rhetoric these days. They should.
  • Creative writing classes are supposed to teach you writing to ENTERTAIN, but how many college professors wrote entertaining bestsellers instead of obscure literary novels that went nowhere?

I have a degree in journalism from a great j-school, competed in speech and debate, took creative writing classes and won silly awards from not-so-silly organizations for editing, reporting, speaking and fiction.

None of that really taught me how to write or speak. You get thrown into the deep end of the pool, and you either sink or doggie-paddle. Doggie paddle isn’t good enough.

Your whole life up through college, people are required to read what you write. Your kindergarten teacher gave you a star, right? Your college professor had to read your term paper.

Out in the real world, nobody has to read our stuff. You have to persuade people to read your stuff. And hardly anyone gets an education in rhetoric and persuasion. So there’s a huge switch right there.

Oh, if you have a degree in journalism or creative writing, sure, you can write a lot better than the man on the street. Technically, your writing will be sound. These programs are good.

So tell me: why are so many smart, well-educated people with degrees in creative writing, English Literature or journalism driving 15-year-old Hondas or selling insurance?

Correct is not spectacular

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Pretty words and grammatically correct sentences don’t mean a thing.

Sure, you’d look like an idiot if you couldn’t string a sentence together. It’s just that correct grammar and well-built sentences are expected. It’s standard.

Think about literary novels. I’m not talking about really good books that aren’t easy to classify as thrillers or mysteries or romance. I’m talking about Serious Literature. If pretty sentences were the trick, then the people who write Serious Literature would be billionaires, not folks like J.K. Rowling, who is now RICHER THAN GOD.

Now, there’s some great stuff out there. I read literature and watch serious, literary movies. Yet some authors of Serious Literature, and makers of Serious Movies, take it as a badge of honor if their book or movie is hard on their audience (“the text is challenging”). It’s seen as wrong to have a happy, “Hollywood” ending, so the endings tend to be intensely dour.

Yes, you can do this right. But it’s easy to make it a tough experience for the reader or moviegoer. The topic also tends to be tough, since a lot of literary novels and movies feature angsty rich people having affairs and spending crazy amounts of money and still being unhappy about it all. Sometimes, to switch things up, literary novels feature miserable stories about grinding poverty or the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life.

Are the sentences pretty? Yeah. They’re gorgeous. Serious Literature can be poetry, and Serious Movies have amazing cinematography and acting, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Is it genius? Maybe. It looked great, and the acting was good. Do I want to see it again? No. You couldn’t pay me to sit through it.

The secret truth about writing is THIS ISN’T ABOUT PRETTY WORDS.

The trick is persuading people to read your stuff, watch the movie or listen to the speech when they have 5.9 million other things they could be reading, watching or doing.

Now, I love newspapers, novels, speeches and movies. But I’m not everybody, and I know a lot of folks who think like this instead: Why listen to some politician speak when you can watch the Packers beat the Bears? Why buy a novel when you can pretend to be a space marine and shoot aliens on the Playstation? Why read a newspaper story about a natural gas refinery blowing up in Texas when you can go to a Michael Bay movie and watch all sorts of stuff blow up in super slow motion while Megan Fox tries to emote in short-shorts and a tank top?

So if it’s not about pretty words, what’s the evil secret to writing?

The inverted pyramid MUST DIE

Big city newspapers love to do these monstrous investigative stories that start on Page One and jump inside for two or three more entire pages.

I’m an ex-reporter who still loves newspapers, and I can’t drag myself through these never-ending stories. Is the writing bad? No. Reporters spend serious time polishing the words on these pieces.

It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.

The inverted pyramid is great for short pieces and headlines, for telling people the most important thing first and the least important thing last. However: the inverted pyramid should be taken out and shot, because it’s a horrible blueprint for anything of length.

The inverted pyramid is like (a) having an amazing honeymoon on your first date, (b) kissing on your second date and (c) holding hands on your third date.

It gives you payoffs without setups, events out of order and people popping in and out of the story randomly. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey. Instead, it teleports the reader directly to the best part, then beams the reader all over the damn planet until you don’t care anymore. It’s not showing a gun in Act 1 that goes off in Act 3 — it’s just a gun going off in Act 1. You don’t know why.

I know the inverted pyramid inside and out. I’ve studied it, used it and abused it. It sucks like Electrolux and needs to be retired. It’s part of the reason why people are reading The Economist and blogs — because they’re going back to the roots of journalism, which was “somebody’s journal.”

That journal, those journalists, started out as first-person accounts. The reporter wrote exactly what they saw, felt, smelled, touched.

Early novels were disguised as journals.

First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.

The dog was yellow

When I worked as a reporter, I’d write 10 to 15 stories a week. Let’s say 500 stories a year. And yeah, I won awards, but if I’m publishing 500 freaking stories a year, 200 of them should be pretty good, 12 should be amazing and six should rock the house.

A while back, I wrote one freelance newspaper story the entire year, about a man losing his dog on top of a mountain, because that man was my friend. The dog, too. My friend — and a bunch of old mountaineers nicknamed the Silver Panther Rescue Squad — went back to that mountain and rescued his dog from a cliff, just off the summit.

That solo story won an award. I batted 1.000 that year, and not because I’d grown so much as a writer since my cub reporter days.

Oh, my sentences were a little prettier. Just not THAT much prettier.

It was because I took the inverted pyramid out back behind the barn and shot it between the eyes.

If I’d had written the story using what they’d taught me in journalism school, the headline would give away the ending — “Man rescues dog on top of mountain” and the lede (first sentence) would be something like this: “After four days of being stuck on a cliff without food or water, one lucky dog is happy to be back home with his owner.”

The story would only get less interesting from there. The last line of the story would be what editors could chop if they were short on space. That last line would be something like, “The dog was yellow.”

To hell with that. I wrote it like a story, because giving the ending away in the headline and first graf is CHEATING THE READER.

College types call this “narrative non-fiction,” which is an overly fancy way of saying storytelling.

Good storytelling is the hardest thing any writer does.

It’s also the most powerful, and the most fun you can legally have as a writer of any sort.

Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices

I don’t care if you’re (1) a speechwriter for a U.S. senator, (2) a romance novelist writing a novel about Men in Kilts and the Women Who Love Them or (3) a screenwriter sipping margaritas by a pool in Hollywood while you pen a movie about a zombie attack during a high school musical.

Storytelling and structure is the hard part.

The bodywork is not the most important part of the car. The engine under the hood is what makes the car go fast.

What they teach us — in college, in most books in writing and at writing conferences — is mostly bodywork.

I don’t care how pretty the car looks. If the engine is a mess — or is completely missing — your readers aren’t going for a ride. At all.

Storytelling and structure is why every Pixar movie has been a blockbuster. The other computer-animated movies look just as pretty. The folks at Pixar simply are ten times better at telling stories.

It’s why novelists who frankly are pedestrian, line by line, sell millions of books while brilliant literary novelists who write gorgeous sentences, every phrase a poem, starve in obscurity.

Clive Cussler may have an ugly bare frame, a glorified go-cart painted seven different shades of bondo. Next to the shining Lexus of a literary novel, his car looks horrible. However, Cussler has a honking V-8, while the Literary Lexus has a lawnmower engine put in backwards.

Cussler, John Grisham and Stephen King understand the structure of stories. They draw the blueprints. They spend most of their energy on the storytelling engine and a lot less time polishing the chrome.

And right there, with those three authors, you see three entirely different levels of writing ability:

  • Cussler is meh.
  • Grisham is workmanlike.
  • King is great. I’d read his Safeway shopping list, because he could make it epic.

Yet all three made it big despite the vast differences in writing skill, because all three mastered an entirely different skill: THEY KNOW HOW TO TELL A DAMN STORY.

Do I hate Cussler’s writing style? Yeah, it grates on me. Do I want to know what happens next? Yes.

Does Stephen the King sometimes ramble on too long and give you a 1,000-page novel when 400 would do? Yes. But we forgive him, because he is a God of Writing and Storytelling, and also because he looks kinda scary, like he might kill you if you pissed him off.

Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.

Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.

It’s not the intensity that matters — it’s the distance you travel

Think of any B-movie, and they all have the same flaw. The structure is bad. The storytelling is horrible.

You might say, hey, it’s a low-budget flick. That’s what you get. No. Indie movies with no budget can be great.

B-movies are bad because they’re built wrong. They’re full of repetition without a purpose.

Right now, you and I can write a better story than the script of TRANSFORMERS 2, which had an army of screenwriters who got paid — I kid you not — something like $4 million for a script about explosions and computer-generated robots born from a cartoon meant to sell toys to seven-year-old boys in the 1980s.

Here’s a short version of the script for TRANSFORMERS 2.

ACT 1:
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 2:
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 3:
Megan Fox has some dirt on her cheek
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS! Bad robots die, but they’ll be back for the sequel.

This also works, in a pinch, as the script for TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS 3.

Is it intense? Sure. Lots of running, lots of fighting, lots of explosions.

Yet it’s boring in the same way most martial arts films get boring, and I love those movies. Here’s the problem with them: Oh, look, it’s another fight. Man, it’s been almost three minutes since the last battle. Why is the hero fighting the blue ninjas? Three minutes ago, he was getting chased by a gang of fat shirtless dudes waving meat cleavers.

After an hour of this, you start praying for a training montage with the old wrinkled mentor who farts a lot and picks his nose and teaches the hero some secret fighting technique before the Big Bad Guy snaps the old man’s spine and kidnaps the old man’s daughter, who happens to be hot, and now the hero will go fight 4,082 different henchmen until he gets to the Big Bad Guy and battles him on a rooftop with rain and lightning going crazy. Yeah. You know I’m right.

B-movies have the same intensity throughout the movie. They crank it up to 11 and stay there.

If every scene in a movie — or every paragraph in a speech — has the intensity cranked up to 11, then you’re shouting at the audience. It becomes noise, and it makes for a flat ride. There’s no momentum, no velocity, no meaning.

Don’t shout at your audience

Most bad speeches have the same B-movie problem. People shout their way through them, confusing volume with passion.

The structure for 99 percent of speeches is also wrong. Listen to any random stump speech from that and there’s nothing holding it together. There’s no story being told, no setups and payoffs, no real structure. This is why the rare candidate who says something different gets hailed as a political rock star.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t a great speaker in a technical sense. He had a lot of verbal tics. What he was great at was telling a story from his days as an actor. He knew that audiences didn’t want to hear just about policies and programs. He made sure to talk about people, too.

Barack Obama was quite different. He also isn’t technically perfect; there are flaws in his delivery that you don’t notice because he and his speechwriters really care about the bones of a speech, about making sure the pieces fit together. They work on the engine first, THEN make it look pretty. Obama’s best speeches are structurally amazing. You can take them apart and see how the pieces intertwine. Or turn an Obama speech into an epic music video.

Velocity and power

No matter what you’re writing, what matters is the journey you take the audience on, the distance traveled. That’s what gives you velocity and power.

This is why tragedies have worked for 2,000 years.

You start UP, say with a wealthy, powerful man. You end DOWN after he falls from grace through hubris. There’s power and velocity there, because it’s a big fall from King of the World way on down to Hobo Begging for Change.

The opposite — Rags to Riches — works as a structure because it’s a big jump.

The bigger the trip, the better the story.

Little jumps don’t work.

This is why most literary novels about grinding poverty go nowhere, because a Rags to Riches story would be too happy-happy Hollywood, right? That sort of text is not challenging! So instead, things go from really bad to even more miserable.

Except that’s a bad structure, because it’s a small hop. It’s not a fall from the top to the bottom. It’s going from the gutter to a different, less desirable gutter, where the food scraps are inferior and the cardboard boxes aren’t as roomy.

Non-jumps don’t work, either.

If you’re a French existentialist director, the last frame of the movie is the hero being hit by a bus, not because he deserves it, but because life is random. There’s a reason why only college students trying to be hip take their dates to French existentialist movies. That reason is this: the movies stink. Give me something that will make me laugh, make me cry, scare me silly. Don’t give me “Life is random and pointless, so let’s have random and pointless things happen to characters for two hours.”

Tales of redemption are powerful because you’ve got the full a roller coaster: UP, DOWN and UP again.

Here’s an easy example: all six STAR WARS movies are really about Darth Vader’s redemption. Luke is only in the last three movies. Vader is in all six. He was good, then he turned bad, and in the end, he sacrificed his life to save his son and kill the real bad guy, the Emperor with Seriously Angry Wrinkles.

Take the audience somewhere

For any kind of writing, this is a law: Take your audience on a journey that actually goes somewhere.

If you’re going to have a down ending, you need an up beginning.

Together to alone.

Democracy to dictatorship.

Life to death.

If the ending is up, the beginning better be down.

Alone to together.

Dictatorship to revolution and democracy.

Hopelessness to hope.

Here’s a non-story example. I bet you’ve seen a lot of TV ads about drunk driving. A tough issue. The usual way people talk about drunk driving — or any problem — is wrong. You’re trying to persuade them to DO something. To take action. The typical way is to beat the audience over the head. “This is a problem. It’s bad. Really, really bad. I’m serious: the problem is bad. Just look at these numbers. Don’t let it happen to you.”

Not persuasive. Not a good structure. It’s all down, isn’t it? Just as flat as a Michael Bay explosion-fest or a literary novel swimming in misery and angst. Sure, the ending should be down. It’s not a happy topic. Then the beginning better be up. And like Reagan, you should talk about real people instead of numbers. So let’s start talking about a real person:

At 7:15 a.m. last Thursday, eight-year-old Ashlyn hugged her daddy goodbye and got into the Subaru with her mom, Jane, to drive to school. Across town at 7 in the morning, Billy Wayne was getting out of the county jail. At ten in the morning, Ashlyn practiced singing the national anthem, which her third-grade class will sing at halftime during the high school homecoming game. Half a mile away, Billy Wayne stole a twenty from his baby mamma’s purse and drove down to the Qwik-E Mart to buy two six packs of Corona Light. At a quarter past 3, Jane picked up Ashlyn from school and they met Billy Wayne at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, when he blew threw a red light at fifty-six miles an hour and his Chevy pickup turned that Subaru into a pile of smoking metal. It was the fourth time Billy Wayne got arrested for driving drunk. People like Billy Wayne get second chance after second chance. Little Ashlyn and her mom won’t get a second chance. But we can change the law. We can lock up chronic drunk drivers.

That’s a far more moving than statistics. Even something tiny like this — it’s less than 200 words — needs structure, because that’s what gives it emotional heft and persuades people. Statistics can come in later.

Those words I just wrote are rough and raw. Not pretty at all. The thing is, they don’t need to be pretty. There’s an engine in there.

Is that plot? Sort of. Except if I’d looked up what specific plot fit this situation and tried to cram in inciting incidents and turning points and all that nonsense in there it would take hours to write instead of two minutes and make my head explode.

All I needed to know was the ending was down (death) and I wanted a big contrast (life) without giving it all away in the first sentence. So there’s tension in that single paragraph.

Emotion matters most

Cussler, Grisham and King understand that fun is OK, that people like a good story that makes them laugh and cry, to feel thrilled or scared out of their minds.

People want to FEEL something.

Misery is actually fine, if you start with misery and take people on a journey that ends in joy. Or if you do the reverse. What you can’t do is pile misery on top of misery for 100,000 words or two hours in a dark room where the popcorn costs $15 — or even two minutes at a podium.

And you can’t stack joy on top of joy.

Also, you want to run far, far away from the Invincible Hero problem, which explains why Batman (no powers) is beloved while people sorta kinda hate Superman (invincible) because it’s never a fair fight. No villain has a shot and you know Superman will win without paying a price.

The only books on writing worth anything, I learned from my genius screenwriter sister, were about screenwriting, because it’s all about storytelling and structure. There’s no way to hide bad structure with pretty words, not in a screenplay. It’s pared down to bare bones anyway. Setups and payoffs. Public stakes and private stakes. Emotion. Turning points. Revelations. Raising the stakes. Building to a climax.

Asking questions without answering them. Will they get together? Who’s the killer? Can the planet be saved from the aliens / comet / zombies?

Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now

Movies are the easiest to talk about because most people have seen them.

THE MATRIX was amazing. Both sequels were terrible. Why? Same writers and directors, same cast, same crew. Giant budget.

The sequels sucked like Electrolux because of structural problems. Story problems.

The first movie had a down beginning and up ending.

The last two movies were flat and boring, despite all the action and fights.

I didn’t care about the last scene of the last MATRIX movie because I wasn’t watching it with some fanboy who could explain to me why the Oracle made a deal with the Architect or whoever, with the deal being the robots take stupid pills and declare a truce after Neo dies killing Agent Smith, when any five-year-old would know that if they continued to fight for three seconds, they’d wipe out the rebel humans once and for all.

Maybe I’m too stupid to fully enjoy the ambiguity and philosophical BS involved. Or maybe the last movie sucked, and the fact that the first movie rocked, making the train wreck the second and third movies all the more painful.

Let’s fix it. Right here, right now.

Who’s the real villain in THE MATRIX? Not Agent Smith — he’s a henchman, a virus.

The real villain is whoever controls the robots while keeping humans as slaves and batteries.

Neo is alive in the beginning and dead in the end. It’s a big leap, a real journey. We can roll with that. His death simply has to mean something other than preserving a bad status quo and an endless war. What are the stakes? Freedom vs. slavery. Life vs. death. Humans are slaves in the beginning. A good ending — a true leap — would have all the humans be free.

Here’s our new ending: Neo sacrifices his life to free the humans and win the war, leading the humans as they finally beat the evil robot overlords and retake Earth.

This way, you’ll care about the last scene, and root for Neo to take out the Evil Robot Overlord in the Most Amazing Fight Scene Known to Man, because if he wins, humanity wins. If he loses, every human starves. We are wiped out.

The stakes are raised, aren’t they? Yeah. Can’t get any higher. Plus, I’d much rather have Neo fight something like the Borg Queen than endless clones of the same stupid henchman he’s been fighting since the first movie.

Take things apart and put them back together

You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car can wait until the V-8 under the hood can pur and roar. Focus on that storytelling engine.

Take something short — a newspaper story, your favorite movie, a column by Paul Krugman or George Will — and outline the structure, the bones.

Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.

Circle the setups and payoffs.

Is the beginning up or down? What about the ending?

Does the writer make it abstract, talking about ideas like freedom or justice — or are there real paper in there, with names and families?

You can learn from amazing writing and horrible writing. Mediocre writing is frustrating. To hell with it. Ignore that stuff.

Look for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Take apart the best to see how the author put it together to make it magic. Restructure the worst to make it work.

Slaying sacred cows

Maybe all this is sacrilege and rebellion. It could be that my pet theories are completely insane and that what you really should do is sign up for journalism school or get a master’s in creative writing or attend seminars about the correct use of semi-colons in headlines and how to write dialogue that sings.

Frankly, I don’t care what you do — follow your heart. Not selling anything here. What I do know is this: every day, I see writers, professional and aspiring, banging their head against the wall, spending hours and hours destroying a house while they’re building it, taking six days to write something that should take sixty minutes.

I see other friends of mine holding something it took them ten months to write, something they slaved over and just can’t fix with line editing because the bones of the story are broken, and they have to hold their baby over the round file and let all those pages, all that work, hit the bottom of that trash can.

It makes an awful sound.

I don’t want to hear that sound.

I don’t want my friends thinking they have to suffer when they write.

Writing doesn’t have to be painful.

It should be fast.

It should be fun.

And it should be magical, for the person banging on the keyboard and for the people who read it.

A love letter to TV weather reporters, those brave, storm-chasing fools

Listen, I made a joke on the Twitter about TV weather reporters.

Except there’s more to it than a joke. These folks really are brave, and no, those windbreakers do not make them invincible.

As a former journalist, I get what they’re doing. We used to have the police scanner on all day and night in the newsroom, and if you heard about a flood, fire, car crash, murder or other bit of mayhem, it was a race to see who could grab their camera and notebook to get out the door first.

When everybody else heads away from danger, reporters walk right up and say hi.

Weather reporters don’t get much respect. It’s seen as an entry-level job, with veterans and hotshots doing “real news.”

So noobs at a TV station are usually the ones who have to get up at oh-dark-thirty to drive into the mountains and do a live shot at 6 a.m. that yes, it’s snowing, as you can see. Then another live shot at 6:30, 7:30, noon, and so forth. The same shot. The same news.

TV weather reporters wade into the floodwaters and storm surges.

And yes, they hit the beaches and try to remain upright when hurricanes roll in with 100+ mph winds.

It’s a tough job.

We should appreciate them more. These folks literally risk their lives trying to educate us and hopefully save some lives. Because if they’re showing up with a brave camera crew, it’s a clear sign that we really should get out of town.

The sleeper cells have awoken

Who wrote the anonymous oped in the Times?

Donald Trump and every other carbon-based lifeform who cares about politics is frantically trying to figure out which senior White House official wrote this oped in The New York Times.

So yes, staffers in the White House are actually texting each other “the sleeper cells have awoken” as they huddle behind closed doors and speculate on who it might be.

Now, I write serious things all day and do this silly blog for fun, and for free. So in normal times I’d post something about weird news, why the third act of the latest DC movie doesn’t work or dissect the first page of novel.

But times are not normal. This is an important moment in history, not just for American democracy and the rule of law, but around the world, as Putin and Russia wage a secret and sustained war against the foundations of democratic countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Let’s talk about how conventional wisdom on the oped is wrong.

1) Unmasking the author doesn’t help Trump one bit

Here’s the thing: solving that mystery won’t help Trump.

The author of this oped is taking a big risk to their job, and career, to warn America.

That warning went out. Unmasking the author doesn’t reverse time and unpublish the oped. We’ve all read it.

The dam broke and the damage is done.

2) Punishing the oped author won’t fix a thing, either

If the author gets revealed, sure, they’ll get fired–if they haven’t resigned already and revealed themselves.

Won’t matter.

The author may not have a future in Republican politics, at least for a few years.

If the author is a staffer and not a cabinet official or former elected official, their name recognition and status will increase exponentially.

No matter who they are, they won’t starve on the unemployment line.

Whoever wrote that oped can write their own ticket with publishers. They’ll be booked solid on every political show when they’re not getting magazine profiles and interviews with newspapers.

3) The incentives are now reversed

Sure, everybody in D.C. leaks to reporters. The normal incentive, though, is for seniors staffers at the White House and cabinet officials to be loyal to the president, or the presidency, until they leave office for a job with a lower profile and higher salary. To keep their nose clean.

That’s why most standard leaks are self-serving and minor.

This oped isn’t self-serving or minor. It’s the nuclear bomb of leaks.

The Trump White House already had reversed incentives in many ways. President Barack Obama cultivated a culture of no drama, as it’s toxic and unproductive if you can’t trust your colleagues and boss.

Trump treats the White House like his old reality show. He likes teasing that a staffer or cabinet official might get fired, and they know from history it may well happen by a random tweet. Just like in reality shows, contestants have to deceive and betray just to survive in this White House.

Now, the incentives are fully reversed from normal. Loyalty isn’t helpful anymore in any respect.

This oped, and the new book by the legendary Bob Woodward, create a new incentive to leak more about Trump and get on the right side of history.

Because they know it’s a train wreck. They see it every day and there’s a distinct feeling that we’ve turned a corner, and the end is near.

If they can’t be quiet and loyal to wait for one of those cushy jobs, the other option—the new incentive—is to beat other leakers at the game and hope the history books make you look like a hero instead of a complicit villain.

4) This will paralyze an already paranoid Trump

Running the most powerful country on the planet is the toughest job on the planet. It takes a team that trusts each other and believes in the boss.

After this oped and the Woodward book, it’s clear they don’t believe in the boss and can’t trust each other.

Anyone could be the mole. Half the staff apparently talked to Woodward.

If you think the White House was dysfunctional before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

5) It’s a race now

The hunt for the identity of the author won’t scare other staffers into not leaking.

It will embolden them.

They know they’re not alone. Woodward’s new book shows how many senior staffers agreed to sit down, with the tape running, to tell the truth.

They know the incentives have flipped, and that subverting a dangerous and dysfunctional White House from within makes them look patriotic instead of disloyal.

And they know the first person to go public—like the oped author—will get far more press and attention than the seventh or tenth.

Leaks to the press will accelerate and escalate.

Expect more anonymous opeds, document dumps and secret tapes.

This week was incredibly awful for Trump, with the Woodward book and NYT oped two mortal blows that will continue to bleed and bleed.

And things will only get worse from here, since no staffer fears getting fired from a sinking ship.

Why writing is EXACTLY like running, except for the part about words

Most of the folks who follow this silly blog are creative types–novelists, editors, journalists, photographers and other brilliant, beautiful people.

So let’s talk about creativity.

Are the arts a habit? Or does the muse randomly descend upon your noggin, so long as you make the right sacrifices and entreaties?

Though my love for the muse is strong, I’m making the case for habit.

All the way.

Because writing–and other creative work–is a hell of a lot like running. Here’s why.

1) The more you do it, the easier it gets

You can take classes about writing (or running), read books, watch videos and listen to experts.

In the end, though, there’s no substitute to getting off your duff and doing it.

And the more you write, or run, the easier it gets.

The first time you run a mile, or write something Serious, it’s painful.

Sometimes so painful that you question why anyone would do this ever again.

But then the next time, you run two miles, or write something twice as long, and it only hurts half as much.

Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

2) You can’t save up and go wild

It’s far, far easier to write 500 words a day, or run 5 miles five days a week, then tell yourself, “Hey, I’m busy this week, but on the weekend, I’ll crank out 2,500 words of that novel or run 25 miles.”

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: trying to cram it all into a weekend, or a single day, is setting yourself up to fail.

A mile a day is easy. You can walk it.

Same thing with 100 words, which you can do with a stubby pencil and the back of an envelope while hanging upside down on a roller coaster.

Two miles a day is still easy, just as 200 words a day is a breeze.

The difficulty goes up exponentially.

Famous novelists in history like Hemingway used to count their words religiously, by hand. They didn’t have a button on Word that did the work for them. And they’d quit for the day after hitting a target like 500 words.

Doesn’t sound like much. Yet that 500 a day is huge.

If you write 500 words a day, every day, that’s 182,500 words a year.

Three novels, unless you’re doing sagas about elves and dragons and such, in which case congrats on finishing that prologue. (I say that out of love.)

Sure, on good days you’ll crank out 1,000 words, and on great days you’ll hit 2,000 and if you’re absolutely on fire, congrats and 4,000.

It’s just that you can’t count on 2,000 words a day, every day, week after week.

Same thing with running. I can do 5 miles maybe three days a week, and work up to four or five days a week after a month or two.

Might do ten miles once a week, if I’m feeling it.

Ten miles a day, every day, isn’t realistic.

Resting all week and running 25 miles on Sunday? Nopity nope nope. Ain’t happening.

3) Loud music and solitude

There are writers I know who can’t write unless the door is closed, to get rid of that feeling that somebody is behind them.

Unless you have a twin, or a great friend who’s in exactly the same shape as you, it’s tough finding a running partner who goes at the same pace and is available to run whenever you can cram it in.

Writing and running are both made for headphones and solitude.

This is one area where running and writing diverge, since I don’t write anything Serious without a fresh cup of joe, while running five or ten miles while carrying a coffee mug hasn’t worked out yet.

4) Coaching, advice and gear isn’t everything, but it sure helps

It’s possible to write only using a pen and legal pads.

Somebody could run barefoot, every day, and be faster than a sedentary person running once a week wearing $225 shoes.

HOWEVER: good coaching, tips and equipment help.

I type faster on an ergonomic keyboard and run faster with good shoes.

Scrivener is better than Word, which is better than a legal pad.

And in both things, there’s always something to learn. One of the wisest men I know says, “Whenever I meet somebody, I learn something.”

Never think asking for advice is a flashing neon sign telling the world you’re an amateur.

Coaching, advice and gear gets more important the better you get at writing or running.

Professional runners and writers don’t tell people, “Yeah, I do this for a living, which makes me an expert, so why would I ask people for help or advice?”

The opposite is true, with the best professionals in the world seeking out the MOST coaching and help, since even a 1 percent boost to their performance matters.

5) Mixing it up is essential

You don’t run the same route, distance and pace every time. You do a hill day, a sprint day, a distance day.

Same thing with writing. There’s great benefit to mixing up what you do and layering it all together.

Journalists should try fiction.

Novelists should give poetry a go.

Screenwriters can gain from checking out rhetoric and speechwriting.

And there’s an order to how you write or train.

Runners and other athletes do workouts in certain progressions: start slow and build up volume. Rest, stretch, massage, ice, heat. It’s not the same thing every day.

Writers have their own progressions. You can’t write and edit at the same time, just like you can’t run and stretch in the same minute. These things happen in series, not parallel.

6) Deadlines focus the mind

Without deadlines, it’s easy to meander along. There’s always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Deadlines make things happen.

I’m running more and more often, and for longer distances, due to a looming deadline: a half marathon in September.

Same thing is true with writing, where deadlines rules.

For the month of August, I did a little experiment. Could I write one post on this silly blog every day, put down at least 500 words a day on the new novel–plus train for the half marathon?

Running got easier, every time. Two miles turned into three miles, then five, six, seven, nine, ten–it flowed.

Without that half-marathon coming up, I would’ve been happy doing five miles forever, and never tested myself to see if nine or 10 would kill me.

Though I missed one Friday with the blog, I doubled up on a different day for 31 posts in 31 days. NOT TOO SHABBY. Pretty sure that’s the most I’ve posted in any month since the dawn of time.

And on the novel, I cranked out 15 chapters, which works out to half a chapter a day, every day.

For structure geeks, that’s 15 chapters out of 36 total in a four-act structure, with nine chapters per act.

Three chapters shy of half a novel is a beautiful, beautiful month.

You don’t complain about that, unless you want the Writing Gods to strike you down with lightning after opening a sinkhole beneath your feet.

I raise my glass to August, for it was Good.

Not good because the muse decided to bless me.

Good because habit, discipline and dedication beats inspiration. Every single time.

Trump’s trouble with Twitter

You’d think that being president of the United States is enough of a bully pulpit, seeing how whatever you say or do gets reported and analyzed around the world.

It’s not enough for Donald Trump, who’s clearly addicted to Twitter, despite the fact that his tweets keep getting him into political and legal trouble.

Just think of Trump as Kirk, and each adorable tribble is a cancerous tweet, eating away at truth and democracy. Image via Giphy.

If you remove politics—I know, this is hard—Donald Trump presents a unique case in messaging and media strategy, especially when it comes to how he uses social media.

Somehow, he steamrolled a field of Republican candidates so big they all couldn’t fit on one stage. Yet using the same media tactics keep backfiring as president.

Let’s drill down on why.

1) Trump truly believes the myth of Any Press is Good Press

When you’re trying to do anything on a big stage—become a famous rock star, actor, artist, writer or politician—most of the battle is simply becoming known. Because if nobody knows you exist, they can’t see your movies, buy your singles on iTunes or vote for you in a primary.

So at first, it’s all about name ID.

Trump clearly buys into this. His name is his brand, and he’ll do anything to boost that brand.

There are two main schools of thought to generating free press and dominating the news cycle. The first school says dominate the news cycle by, I don’t know, making actual news. Saying something bold and fresh. Announcing a new policy (“We will put a man on the moon!), revealing a secret, saying who your veep will be. That sort of thing.

The other school of thought in PR—an evil school I don’t subscribe to—says, “I don’t care if the story is good or bad, as long as they spell my name right.”

Trump doesn’t just buy into the theory that all press is good press. He *needs* press as a form of attention and validation.

That didn’t hurt him as a businessman, or even as one of 17-bazillion candidates for the Republican nomination. Because it’s true that you can boost your name ID and make money by doing outrageous things. His business goals and personal needs were in alignment.

So the first thing you have to think about is why Trump uses Twitter, and it’s not four-dimensional chess. It’s to gin up press and attention, like he’s always done.

2) The pro’s and cons of constant controversy

Gaffes that would slay ordinary politicians failed to kill Trump’s candidacy.

People expect craziness from him. It’s not a shock. He’s vaccinated himself by doing it so often for so long.

Trump’s go-to move is something that’s guaranteed to generate tons of free ink: insult other famous people. Give them frat-boy nicknames, make fun of their size, call women ugly, attack minorities—whatever it takes.

Yet the downside is huge. Even as an unknown, hustling to make it big, generating controversy boosts your name ID at the expense of your reputation.

Becoming president changed everything for Trump.

Every single spelling mistake, provable lie and temper tantrum he tweets gets dissected on the global stage.

Trump didn’t adjust. He still acts like he’s hustling to get known and make it big, posting risky tweets because that’s what worked to boost his name ID and get earned media.

Except you don’t need to boost your name ID when you’re the president of the United States of America.

And when you pick fights as president, you’re always punching down, attacking people with less power than you. There’s no way it’s seen as anything but bullying.

Trump doesn’t care because he’s still generating attention. Sure, the press will cover his tweets, and people will read those stories.

People will always be entertained by watching human train wrecks. It’s just lot less fun being a passenger on that train when Trump’s driving it off a cliff.

3) There is no plan, only emotion

Most public figures and leaders tweet with a purpose. They have a plan and check with others, including professionals who understand media and message, to make sure they avoid self-inflicted wounds while making progress toward tangible goals.

Political candidates and leaders usually try to gain support and build bridges. Because that’s how you get elected and get things done for the folks you represent.

Trump tweets for himself, based on his needs and emotions. The primary emotion is rage, but even his positive tweets are ones that focus on his favorite subject: Donald Trump.

Tweeting gives him instant gratification. He doesn’t have to wait until tomorrow’s newspaper or for what he said to hit CNN or FOX. The retweets, likes and comments show up in seconds.

So I don’t buy the theory that Trump is doing insanely complicated things on Twitter and somehow playing four-dimensional chess. When he gets mad, he tweets. And he continues to do so despite the obvious legal and political damage. He’s blown up deals with the Republican-controlled Congress with a single tweet, started trade wars and threatened nuclear war. I’m not sure how he could use Twitter to do more damage. He’s pretty much got it covered.

His political goals and personal needs are out of alignment.

Trump isn’t building bridges and making friends with controversial tweets, attacks on his enemies and provable lies. He’s motivating those that oppose him and giving Robert Mueller evidence of obstruction of justice.

This is a key point. Prosecutors need evidence of intent for a crime like obstruction of justice. This is ordinarily hard to get. Trump has turned his tweets into a permanent, written record of his intent, a stream-of-consciousness monologue for everyone to see. It’s a peek inside his brain, and that picture isn’t pretty.

The last argument you could make is Trump uses tweets as fan service, to feed his base. Except when pollsters and pundits talk to people who voted for him, one thing keeps coming up: they wish he’d stay off Twitter.

He won’t.

Not even if it costs him the White House.

Florida Man: Why one state is the absolute mecca for weird news

As a reformed journalist, I have a lifelong fascination with weird news—an addiction that a single state tries hard to satisfy.

Every. Single. DAY.

No other state can hold a candle to Florida.

It’s the only state with its own Fark tag, with so many weird news headlines starting with “Florida man” there’s a Twitter handle that endlessly tweets out insane stories starting with those two words.

I could not love Florida more for this.

Here’s a sample of recent Florida headlines, lovingly curated by fark.com:

Florida Man enters Jacksonville store and chases people with live alligator

Florida teacher quits to become full-time grocery shopper and doubles his salary

Key West mayoral candidate takes a personal cell phone call during a debate. From God

Florida man charged with identity theft after impersonating Backstreet Boy

17-year-old gets attacked by snake while mowing lawn. Gives sage advice: “watch out for snakes”

Police say Florida man planned his suicide for years, making it look like murder by using a weather balloon to carry away the gun

All this craziness packed into a single state begs the question: Why does Florida Man live in Florida?

Theory # 1: Deadly wild animals up the wazoo

Alligators, sharks, pythons invading the Everglades—and those are just the apex predators. You’ll find crazy stories about rabid racoons, bat infestations and all sorts of animal disasters and shenanigans. Yes, that’s the proper spelling. Take note.

Few other states boast the biodiversity needed to generate this much mayhem.

Theory # 2: Dumb criminals

A weird news story’s power gets squared when a stable genius criminal does something truly idiotic only to have karma delivered by the local wildlife.

One great example: man commits a robbery at night and the cops chase him … so he makes the brilliant move of hiding in a nearby pond, where an alligator has him as a midnight snack.

Theory # 3: Paaaaarty time

Florida is seen as a tropical getaway, a place where you go to party on spring break or to retire in the sunshine.

Alcohol and drugs are a common ingredient in weird news stories. Florida gets far more than its fair share of dumb criminals doing dumb things after getting hammered or high. Sometimes both.

Theory # 4: The power of convergence

Every great weird story is a combination of factors, usually (1) men who are (2) drunk or high, doing something risky involving (3) crime, (4) firearms, (5) explosives or (6) wild animals who can kill you.

It’s like baking a cake. Even if most states have an ingredient or two, they don’t have all six, not in the quantities that Florida does. It’s a giant state, one of the biggest, with more people moving there all the time and all those pythons in the Everglades busy laying eggs when they’re not fighting alligators. The weird news will only grow with time.

VERDICT

Florida is an interesting, dynamic place, a semi-tropical paradise that also happens to be home to some of the craziest stories you’ll ever see. We love you, Florida Man—don’t change a thing.

Why all writers need to study the secrets of screenwriting

So my genius sister, Pamela Kay, made a series of YouTube videos on how to write screenplays. She won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy and knows her stuff. Heed her words, even if you don’t write screenplays, because this field is crazy useful for any sort of writer.

Why? The secret to all writing is structure–and nobody is better at structure than screenwriters.

Not because they’re magical and amazing, though many are. It’s because you can hide bad structure with pretty words in a novel or feature story.

With screenplays, you can’t hide the bad bones of a story, because that’s all people see: the bones.

Writing today has far too many silos, mostly focused on little details, with few notions on structure at all:

  • Writing to inform: Journalists are stuck inside the inverted pyramid, a structure that’s inherently boring for anything of length, which is why journalists typically stink at novels
  • Writing to persuade: Speechwriters know the structure of rhetoric, but it’s not really meant for writing anything to inform or entertain
  • Writing to entertain: Novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters all have their own jargon and tricks, like they live on different planets

This reminds me of boxing, wrestling and martial arts before the days of MMA, with everybody doing their own little thing and swearing they’d whip the lesser disciplines. Except boxers got destroyed by the wrestlers, who got owned by the jujitsu people, who later on got wrecked by the boxers who learned how to sprawl. To be truly good fighters, fighters had to set aside their pride and train in every discipline.

I believe the same is true for writers today. There’s never been more content out there, with scads created every second all around the world, so there’s never been more competition to get read.

From having a toe in journalism, speechwriting and novels, I know you could slave away in one of these fields for years and still miss out on core fundamentals. Not learning from other disciplines is like building a house when all you know is drywall and plumbing–the thing is going to fall down.

Screenwriting is key because structure is why 99 percent of bad drafts are bad. Go look at a bad draft. Line by line, the words are plenty pretty. Structure is what vexes us all.

So: I hope this video gives you a taste of screenwriting and her series sparks something in you. Not so you can write LETHAL WEAPON 7: DANNY GLOVER AND MEL GIBSON BUST OUT OF THE SANTA MONICA NURSING HOME, but so you can learn how to pour the foundation of any sort of story, making it stands strong so you can move on to the wiring (dialogue), plumbing (setups and payoffs) and drywall (description).

Any sort of writing with strong bones will beat the stuffing out of the prettiest words with a weak foundation.

If you want more, here are two of the basic texts, the guide stars: STORY by Robert McKee is a deep dive on structure, while SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is a breezy little look at genres, beat sheets and story, using movies we all know.

P.S. Pam did a ton of these videos, so I’ll try to post one every Tuesday as long as she keeps making them.

Chapter 5: Resisting Oppression

This is the last of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Oppressive regimes react predictably to protests and opposition movements: they instinctively crack down on any dissent.

The methods used are brutal, but aren’t that surprising or creative. Non-violent resistance and smart messaging can make this instinct backfire on authoritarian rulers.

Step 28. Know their playbook

Protestors will be painted as paid thugs and traitors, with riot police blocking their movement. If protests continue, a regime may use tear gas, fire hoses and mass arrests—or simply outlaw mass protests altogether.

Judges and lawmakers who don’t go along with oppression will get marginalized, replaced or charged with bogus crimes.

Whistleblowers who leak documents to the press or opposition will be tracked down, if possible, and arrested and jailed.

Journalists who reveal the truth about the regime will be threatened, attacked or arrested.

Opposition figures who try to run against the ruler may be disqualified from the ballot or charged with bogus crimes.

If there are local and state police operating with local control, the regime will try to nationalize all police and law enforcement under their direct control.

To combat the manufactured threats generated by constant lies and a sustained propaganda campaign, the regime will seek greater powers, possibly via martial law or states of emergency, to combat these fake threats.

The true reason for this is to remove any checks and balances in the system, whether it’s the courts or lawmakers.

Law enforcement that used to go after criminals and spy agencies that focused on foreign threats will be redirected against lawmakers, judges, journalists and opposition leaders.

Insulting the ruler may become grounds to be sued for defamation or charged with a crime.

Censorship of the media, radio, television and internet will be justified as necessary to safeguard the nation against terrorism and foreign threats.

 

The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together.

Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen.

Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior.

Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

Populism can survive only amid polarization.

It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy.

—Andrés Miguel Rondón

 

Step 29. No singular leader or movement

If the opposition is united under a single banner with a singular leader, that makes it easy for the regime to focus all its firepower on that one opposition group and leader.

A single leader can be smeared, compromised, arrested or imprisoned. A united, national opposition group can be infiltrated, attacked with police raids and depleted by lawsuits.

Let the opposition grow organically and be leaderless, so there’s no one person or group as the regime’s target. Making the opposition leaderless also allows for the most flexibility and local control.

Everyone can feel like they can make a difference rather than being a cog in a machine.

Step 30. Protect whistleblowers, journalists and protest leaders

Peaceful protestors aren’t doing anything unethical or wrong. That won’t stop the regime from trying to use censorship and oppression.

Protect whistleblowers and journalists: Decades ago, authoritarian regimes kept tight control of copying machines because they knew a single copier could be used to spread the truth.

Today, it’s much, much harder to prevent average citizens—or patriotic government officials—from leaking documents revealing how the regime is corrupt and undemocratic.

Anyone with access to such information should carefully leak it to the free press and make sure, once the story breaks, that other copies are safely out of the hands of the regime.

Don’t trust encryption.  Assume the regime can trace anything you do using a smart phone or computer. Instead, use couriers and dead drops.

Use go-betweens. Whistleblowers with access to information should not be one who leak that information directly to the press or opposition. Use a series of go-betweens to protect whistleblowers.

Make copy after copy. Regimes will try to censor or confiscate leaked material and anything embarrassing.  Make multiple copies of important documents in different formats—digital, paper—and keep them safe in different locations.

Dead drops are a time-tested way to safely get documents and information to others.

Never have a face-to-face meeting to transfer sensitive information.

Put the document or thumb drive in an innocent, waterproof container and hide it in a public place, such as taped beneath a parking garage stairwell or beneath a shelf in a public library. Don’t tell anyone where the dead drop is until after the item is already there and the person who placed it is long gone.

Step 31. Use old-fashioned tools

Regimes will put opposition leaders, journalists and whistleblowers under surveillance.

These are some simple precautions to protect against this and to make the regime waste time and resources.

Don’t make it easy. If you suspect you’re being watched, don’t keep a regular schedule that lets a small team keep watch.

Keeping one person under surveillance takes a team. Doing work at odds hours of the evening means the regime has to add a night shift.

Meet with friends at restaurants or bars after midnight and they’ll need another team to work the graveyard shift.

No one-on-one meetings: Don’t meet one-on-one with important whistleblowers, journalists or opposition leaders. Talk with them, briefly, as part of a large group or event: a dinner party, a concert, a wedding or a soccer game.

Mix your real message in a sea of fakes. If something is truly important, send a flood of fake messages in different formats with different dates and details along with the one real message.  Even if all these messages are in simple code, or no code at all, there’s no way for the regime to know the fake from the real.

Watch for infiltrators and instigators. Regimes will send undercover agents to known meetings of the opposition, to gather intelligence and to instigate possible violence to discredit the opposition.

Switch channels. To communicate securely with journalists or other opposition leaders, don’t use the same channel every time. Switch whenever possible.

Book codes. Digital encryption can be broken. If you need to send encrypted messages, book codes are unbreakable, no matter how many supercomputers are thrown at the problem.

Instead of codes referring to letters, a book code refers to the specific page, line and word of widely-available books.

To make it even more secure, continually switch the book used as the key to the code.

Adapt faster than the regime. Above all, continually adapt and change. Use the vast size and strength of a nation-state against the regime, which can’t innovate and adapt as fast as a loose collection of opposition groups.

Step 32. Find safe harbors

Some regimes have massive operations to block media sources from overseas and censor the internet, while others use jamming signals to block radio and television broadcasts from outside their borders.

Modern technology change has made form of censorship this much, much harder.  But it’s not impossible. Some regimes employ a great number of people to censor the internet in their country, with various degrees of success.

What remains impossible for any regime, no matter how rich and powerful, is censoring censor newspapers and opposition leaders based entirely in other countries.

Journalists, whistleblowers and opposition leaders should therefore find and establish places which they can use as a safe places in other countries.

Use safe harbors to:

  • Talk to the media in countries where the regime has no leverage against the free press
  • Keep vital information and secrets safe
  • Spread leaks to the foreign press where the regime can’t apply pressure
  • Cultivate non-profits, friendly political leaders and ex-pats who can speak for the opposition

Step 33. Turn every target into a hero and symbol

Successful non-violent oppositions can turn each act of brutality and oppression into a chance to create a new hero.

Rosa Parks became an American icon for the simple act of refusing to give up her seat to a white man on the bus in the segregated South.

Srjdja Popovic’s brilliant book, Blueprint for Revolution, describes how in Serbia during the protests against Slobodan Milosevic, getting arrested turned people into famous symbols.

Protestors sang songs outside jails and chanted the names of those arrested. When protestors got released, they got rock-star receptions. Only those who got arrested 10 times earned a black Optor! opposition T-shirt, which became a token of respect and status.

Whoever the regime targets for threats, beatings or arrests, turn that person into a symbol of courage and resistance.

Share their stories, and tie it back to tales of people like Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafazia, Mahatma Gandhi, Guo Feixiong and Nelson Mandela.

 

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org

 

Power is not a means, it is an end.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

—George Orwell

Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth

This is the fourth of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth

An authoritarian regime uses lies and propaganda are used not only to generate far and smear opponents, but to distract the press and public from their larger strategy: consolidating power and accumulating wealth.

The main front of the War on Truth is an attack on independent sources of information and truth, primarily the free press, to prevent that corruption from being uncovered.

A second front is propaganda, fake news and misinformation.

Step 22. Support and protect the free press

A free, independent press is crucial to shining a light on corruption and oppression. Only the independent press has the credibility to perform this role.

If opposition lawmakers or protest groups discover corruption and try to inform the people about it, their ethos—their credibility—is weak, because they’re obviously biased.

The free press is the only real institution with the credibility to shine a light on corruption, oppression and injustice. That’s why authoritarian regimes relentlessly attack the press with smears, lawsuits and violence.

Fight back against any attempts to pass laws that crack down on freedom of the press and freedom of speech, including laws making it easier to sue the press for libel. Also watch for new laws that punish journalists for refusing to reveal sources, such as government whistleblowers.

Support independent newspapers acting as a check on the regime by subscribing to key newspapers and media outlets, advertising with them and getting friends and allies to do the same.

When individual reporters are attacked—in public, on social media or with lawsuits and arrests—rally to their defense.

Make smears backfire by treating every attacked reporter as a national hero. If  a regime tries to stage police raids on newspapers or TV stations, blockade the entrances, hold sit-ins and do what you can to make those raids painful and publicized.

Step 23. Attack the heart of propaganda outlets

Anonymity is the beating heart of propaganda.

Unlike journalism, propaganda hides both who’s writing and producing their material and who’s paying for it all.

Attack the heart of propaganda by depriving it of that shield of anonymity.

Unmask the writers and creators of propaganda. Shame is a powerful tool, and the last thing the people who make their living writing and producing this material is for their friends and neighbors to know what they really do for a living.

More importantly, find the funding sources. If the regime itself is entirely funding a propaganda operation, use that to discredit all that they say.

When propaganda is coming from a media outlet with any sort of advertising funding, start a #grabyourwallet campaign to boycott businesses that advertise on propaganda outlets until they remove their support.

 

The rulers of backsliding democracies resent an independent press, but cannot extinguish it. They may curb the media’s appetite for critical stories by intimidating unfriendly journalists, as President Jacob Zuma and members of his party have done in South Africa.

Mostly, however, modern strongmen seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution, by denying that such a thing as independent judgment can exist. All reporting serves an agenda.

There is no truth, only competing attempts to grab power.

By filling the media space with bizarre inventions and brazen denials, purveyors of fake news hope to mobilize potential supporters with righteous wrath—and to demoralize potential opponents by nurturing the idea that everybody lies and nothing matters.

― David Frum

 

Step 24. Ignore fake news and faceless trolls

Kings, emperors and dictators used rumors and whisper campaigns against journalists, judges and the political opposition.

Modern technology has simply shifted those techniques to the digital realm.

Nation-states have the resources to design and deploy elaborate misinformation campaigns:

  • Fake news stories and websites
  • Doctored documents and photos
  • Armies of faceless trolls on the internet
  • Manipulated video and audio

Debunking this flood of fake news and smear attacks is a waste of time.

You can’t refute lies and smears without repeating them in some fashion, spreading them wider.

The only real strategy to deal with trolls is to starve them of the attention they seek. Never engage, no matter how hard they try to provoke you.

Step 25. Turn propaganda against itself

Instead of words, propaganda relies on images, photos, audio, posters film and music.

Propaganda tends to crop up during wartime, even in free democracies, then disappear in peacetime.

What authoritarians do is maintain a permanent campaign of propaganda during war or peace. If you glance at war propaganda posters, this becomes immediately clear: the enemy is depicted not as human beings, but as rats and monsters.

Propaganda is also used to boost the ruler’s perceived strength. It’s no accident authoritarian regimes puts portraits of the ruler everywhere you look, making them seem omnipresent.

A final role of propaganda is to rally the population behind the ruler while portraying any sort of opposition or protest as treasonous.

Don’t give in to the notion that fighting back means using the same techniques as the regime. Spreading your own lies, propaganda and misinformation isn’t smart because it undermines the credibility of the opposition. You’d sacrifice the moral high ground.

And you can’t win by mirroring the regime’s tactics, because this will never be a fair fight.

No opposition can ever match the money and resources of an entire nation-state. It’s like a heavyweight boxer taking on random civilians on the street, including young children and grandmothers. While cheating.

Any battle against propaganda has to be fought with asymmetrical guerilla tactics. Turn the overwhelming presence of propaganda against itself. Take all the time, money and effort the regime spends on posters, slogans and messages and subvert them in creative ways.

Portraits of the ruler posted everywhere are targets for rebellion and mockery. All it takes is a marker and some creativity.

Videos and songs meant to rally the people behind manufactured enemies, and behind the ruler, are easy to satirize by anyone with a laptop and time. Even if the regime tries to censor such videos and songs on the internet, they can’t stop marchers from singing the same words.

Finally, don’t focus satire the subverts the regime’s propaganda on the foibles of ruler, because rulers don’t last forever, while their ideology and methods will continue unless they’re stopped.

Aim mockery at the actual policies of the regime.

Step 26. Send the right messengers

Talking, marching and organizing with people who already agree with you may feel good, and can help the opposition get organized. Staying in that bubble can’t win the day.

Any successful fight against the War on Truth has to focus its persuasive efforts on reaching and persuading supporters of the regime.

Authoritarians gain and sustain power through extreme populism. They appeal to the working class while painting educated professionals as the enemy. By contrast, the natural base of any opposition movement is typically educated and urban.

The working class base of support for an authoritarian regime is typically afraid because they’re struggling economically and desperately want change. They don’t trust the educated elite to give them the change they want.

Listen to supporters of the regime first, and understand their fears, before trying to persuade them with the right message and local messengers.

A powerful message—The opposition’s narrative has to be just as simple and emotional as the regime’s story of a nation united against dangerous enemies.

A real political message is more than a slogan.  It’s a narrative that explains what causes problems in society, how you solve those problems and what an ideal society would look like.

Facts won’t defeat the regime’s powerful, fear-based message.

You need a counter-narrative that explains what causes problems in society (corruption, lies and oppression), how problems are solved (clean, honest government, freedom of speech and fair elections) and what an ideal society looks (a safe, open society where people can be free and prosperous).

Local messengers—Whoever shares the opposition narrative should be from the same demographics and region as the audience you’re trying to reach.

Don’t send anyone who looks or sounds like a member of the educated elite to working class neighborhoods, because they’ll be seen a politician who can’t understand their daily life.

Cultivate fresh voices who get their hands dirty doing the same jobs, every day, as the people you’re trying to reach.

Those new voices, no matter how effective, shouldn’t parachute in and out of places.

Opposition voices and leaders should be found and supported locally, in the very places where the regime’s support is the strongest.

Step 27. Weave stories into everything

Plato feared stories more than anything else.

More than logic. More than facts.

Stories are how we naturally process information. It’s the most powerful form of communication.

Narratives come in many forms, and there’s an art to doing them on a high level. But you’re not trying to write novels or screenplays for a living.

You can, and should, structure whatever you do in terms of a simple, strong narrative.

The biggest difference between narrative stories and the stories you see in newspapers is structure.

Journalism typically uses the inverted pyramid, which is a fancy way of saying “put the exciting bit in the headline and first paragraph, then make it more boring until it peters out at the end.”

There are good reasons for newspapers to use this structure, because it gives people the most important information first and lets editors cut the end of a story if they ran out of room on a page.

This journalistic style of writing is pretty typical for public relations, especially press releases.

Yet it’s terrible for the purposes of persuasive writing and communication, which is what you’re doing as an opposition movement.

Instead, use a narrative structure for everything you do. Everything: speeches, letters to the editor, videos, protest songs and even posters.

The basics of narrative are simple.

Villains, heroes and stakes: Every story is a conflict between villains and heroes. The villains are the most important part of a story. What if the villain wins? Show what’s at stake for the people in the story and for the greater public.

Curiosity and surprise—Narratives are strong because they’re the opposite of the inverted pyramid. They make you curious, build up that tension and only reveal the answers at the absolute end of the piece.

Maximum emotional distance—The best stories, speeches, books and movies maximize the emotional distance the audience travels.

If the ending is up (happy, excited), the beginning should be down. If the ending is down (sad, upset), the beginning should be up.

Never write flat. If the story you tell is down the entire time, or up the entire time, there’s no velocity to what you’re doing. The audience is lost.

Think of a roller coaster. That’s the kind of structure you want, with emotional velocity.

Concrete imagery—Don’t tell people something is wrong or unjust. Talk about real people, about what they saw, touched and heard. Make it real.

End with stories of action—Subtext is more powerful than text. It’s never persuasive to beat people over the head with your message. That’s a lecture.

Instead of telling people to act, find ways to end every speech and message with an example of a person who stood up, spoke up and took action. Inspire them to action.

 

Next week—Chapter 5: Resisting Oppression

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org