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.

The world explained by TWO COWS

the world explained by two cows

If you went to university, like me, and studied the philosophers and the political science and such, you learned that people far, far smarter than us violently disagree on (a) how the world works, (b) how the world SHOULD work and (c) who should run the world.

However: I can boil down all the major approaches to these worldly questions simply by using two cows. No joke. Won’t even charge you $30k for tuition and $25 for room and board. I’ll do it for free, and for fun.

Here we go:

ANARCHY: You have two cows. Either you sell the milk at a fair price — or your neighbors steal your cows and kill you.

FEUDALISM: You have two cows. Your lord takes some of the milk.

PURE DEMOCRACY: You have two cows. Your neighbors decide who gets the milk.

NIHILISM: You have no cows. Who really cares, anyway? They’re just gonna die some day, and so are you. And nobody’s going to remember you. And even if they did, you’d still be dead. It’s all so pointless. You might as well be dead now.

COWS WITH GUNS: You are a cow, and humans want to turn you into hamburger. The only solution? A revolution.

DARWINISM: You have two cows. They develop opposable thumbs and milk you.

NORTH KOREAN COMMUNISM: We do not need cows. Those are the tools of the ruthless capitalist exploiters and rapists of the proletariat in the oppressed, feudal South. We will, in keeping with the principles of Juche, eat our own grass. Please do not pay attention to the mooing coming from the two large crates addressed to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.

DICTATORSHIP: You have two cows. The government takes both and drafts you into the army.

THE MATRIX: There is no cow.

poster for The Matrix
Spoiler: the first movie is perfect, while the two sequels put the S in Suck. Image via Wikipedia

REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY: You have two cows. Your neighbors pick someone to tell you who gets the milk.

ROMANTICISM: You have two beautiful, majestic, elegant, bovine companions. You think about them daily.

PURE SOCIALISM: You have two cows. The government takes them and puts them in a barn with everyone else’s cows. You have to take care of all of the cows. The government gives you as much milk as you need.

BRITISH DEMOCRACY: You have two cows. One of your cows has a small foot infection. The government orders you to burn both cows. All the cows in the surrounding area are also burned, roads and footpaths are closed and the media throws the country into a panic. You decide to protest about not being allowed to hunt foxes on public roadways.

PURE COMMUNISM: You have two cows. Your neighbors help you take care of them, and you all share the milk.

BERKELIAN ANALYSIS: You have two cows. You put your cows in a drawer and close it. Your two cows cease to exist.

RUSSIAN COMMUNISM: You have two cows. You have to take care of them, but the government takes all the milk.

VEGANISM: You have two cows, and choose not to exploit them. Everyone is happy, especially the cows.

CANADIAN CAPITALISM: You have 2 cows. The government takes the milk and puts it in a bag. You get free health care.

YODAISM: Two cows you have, hmmm?

INDUSTRIALISM: You have two cows. You dissect them both and figure out how to build a milk-factory instead.

CONSERVATIVE CAPITALISM: The poor should give their cows to the rich so that the milk will trickle back down to the poor.

BIG BROTHERISM: You have two cows. Black is white. Eurasia is ungood. Eastasia is ungood. Oceania is plusgood. BB is doubleplus good. You have one cow.

SWISS CAPITALISM: You have 5000 cows, none of which belongs to you. You charge for storing them for others. If they give milk, you tell no one.

FREUDIAN ANALYSIS: You have two cows. You dream that they come to your bedroom at night, dressed in your mother’s clothes. On waking, you initially deny that this could mean anything. On further consideration, you move through phases of intellectualisation, displacement and projection, and finally determine that the cows represent a psychic compensation for the passive/aggressive treatment you received from your father during your adolescence. Also, you have a thing for mom.

RUSSIAN CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You drink some vodka and count them again — whoah, you have FIVE cows. The Russian Mafia shows up and takes however many cows you may or may not have.

GOVERNMENT COW-ER-UP: Cows never crash-landed in the New Mexico desert. In fact, cows never even existed. You never saw anything.

UTOPIAN LIBERTARIANISM: You have two cows. You sell one, buy a bull and grow a prosperous herd of cows.

HONG KONG CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt / equity swap with associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax deduction for keeping five cows. The milk rights of six cows are transferred via a Panamanian intermediary to a Cayman Islands company secretly owned by the majority shareholder, who sells the rights to all seven cows’ milk back to the listed company.

DARTH VADER: The two cows would be powerful allies. They will join us or die.

IDIOCRACY: You have two cows. One cow is stupid and breeds with other stupid cows, while the smart cow doesn’t try to mate. Eventually, you have lots of stupid cows.

NIGERIAN CAPITALISM: DEAR FRIEND, I AM SON OF FORMER NIGERIAN PRESIDENT SANI ABACHA. YOU WERE RECOMMENDED TO ME BY A COLLEAGUE. I HAVE A BUSINESS PROPOSITION FOR YOU. I HAVE TWO COWS…

PACIFISM: You have two cows. They stampede you.

CYNICAL LIBERTARIANISM: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull and grow a prosperous herd of cows that your neighbor steals. He may or may not shoot you first. But we don’t need a government or police — your survivors can always sue the evil neighbor for damages.

PROTECTIONISM: You have two cows. You can’t buy a bull from another country.

FRISBEETARIANISM: You have two cows. One of them flies up on the roof and gets stuck. You hope the government provides cow ladders.

SURREALISM: You have two giraffes. The government requires you to take harmonica lessons.

Why Facebook friends, Twitter followers and blog hits don’t actually matter

media strategy saturday meme

Hear me now and believe me later in the week:

  • Blog hits don’t really matter.
  • Most people actively trying to collecting bazillions of Facebook “friends” are wasting everybody’s time, including their own.
  • Your number of Twitter followers doesn’t mean diddly.

Just saying these things is heresy to Internet Fanboys, who believe nothing is more powerful than the series of tubes.

If they can only find a way to implant a USB 3.0 socket in the back of their skull, they’ll be able to jack into the Matrix, do insane kung fu kicks and stop bullets JUST BY THINKING ABOUT IT, but they’re too busy looking at the woman in the red dress that they never leave the keyboard, go out in the real world and, I don’t know, kiss an actual girl.

Am I saying unplug from the series of tubes entirely? No. The internets, they are useful for many things.

I’m saying the real world is ALSO useful for many more things.

Why blog hits don’t matter

Everybody wants to be read. I mean, it’s sad to start a blog, put time and effort into writing great posts and have virtually no traffic.

However: let’s get practical.

When I started my old blog, it was to serve a specific purpose: a permanent home for the craigslist ad to sell the Epic Black Car.

WordPress is free. My sister, who is a flipping genius, told me that she loved working with the WordPress, that it was easy and fun. So I popped the ad on there, threw some photos in the craigslist ad and thought nothing of it.

Did it really matter whether I had 50 visitors a day, 500 or 5,000?

No. Not at all. Really, I wanted to sell one car to one person. Once.

The fact that silly ad went viral didn’t matter. Fun? Sure. But that’s all.

Now, our brains aren’t wired to be that logical and practical. We all have egos, which like attention and get all sad if nobody shows up. WHO WILL PAY FOR OUR THERAPY? Continue reading “Why Facebook friends, Twitter followers and blog hits don’t actually matter”

MAN OF STEEL and the Invincible Hero Problem

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

As a non-fan of the Superman, I can honestly say this: MAN OF STEEL is far, far better than expected.

It’s like Zack Snyder took the only good parts of PROMETHEUS (cool spaceships and outfits!), stuffed it into a blender with INDEPENDENCE DAY (aliens are coming to blow up the planet!) and added with a dash of Wolverine (hairy shirtless tough guy wanders planet, doing random good deeds).

Russell Crowe is surprisingly awesome in MAN OF STEEL. Who knew?
Russell Crowe is surprisingly awesome in MAN OF STEEL. Who knew?

I mean all that in a good way.

HOWEVER: The world doesn’t need another review of Soupman’s latest reboot. What the world needs is a real discussion of a real problem that Superman and other heroes can’t seem to shake.

They’re invincible. And that, friends, is crazy boring.

Iconic heroes made of flesh and blood already have a serious problem, since everybody sitting in the seats, munching on $9 popcorn, knows they’re icons. We know the producers of James Bond movies would never wake up one day and say, “I know — let’s kill off Bond and start some other kind of film, maybe with a 200-year-old sparkling vampire who’s into whiny teeangers.”

Hollywood wants franchises, and you don’t kill off the foundation of billion-dollar juggernauts. Ironman will never die. Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Spock, Kirk (new young Kirk, not Shatner, who they did kill off), Wonder Woman — hey, they’re all safe.

But they’re not invincible. They can and do suffer. They can bleed and die. We know that.

Superman is never really in trouble. Stuff happens to him on screen and you shrug, because hey, that’s Superman.

It’s not the same with Batman, who’s been stabbed, knocked out, set on fire and generally abused. One of the great things about the Dark Knight trilogy is how much Batman really does suffer, sacrifice and grow.

MAN OF STEEL does a good job, and it’s a fun movie. The problem is the character of Superman, who’s a lot like Neo after the end of THE MATRIX, when Keanu Reeves can do anything.

Where do you go from there? Turns out you wander around and get lost for two movies that got progressively worse until something perfect turned into something meh. Which is sad. THE MATRIX was brilliant … right up until Neo went all Superman on us.

Here’s an ironclad rule of storytelling that I’m inventing right now: The villain has to be more powerful than the hero. Always.

Not equally powerful. Not less powerful. The villain has to be superior.

Otherwise, we’re sitting in a dark room watching Chuck Norris swivel around on his cowboy boots as he kicks 59 random henchmen in the face. Does it look pretty? Sure. Is it dramatic and exciting and good story? No. We know Chuck — or Jason Statham, or whoever — is better, and that our hero is gonna win.

When your hero is invincible, like Superman and Neo, the villain can’t be more powerful. It’s impossible.

Think about every Boring Action Movie you’ve ever seen: the villain is less powerful and scary than the hero, which is why he needs an army of thugs to protect him from the big bad scary hero, who starts out the story as an amazing tough guy and ends the story … as an amazing tough guy. Most of the bad Bond movies are like this.

Same thing with every Failed Comic Book Movie, like the lame Hulk films. The Angry Green Thing is basically invincible. Bullets bounce off him. Tank rounds go clang off his green skin. How can you worry about the guy getting in trouble, or having a tough time with a bad guy? This is why comic book movies tend to have hordes of villains. That’s compensating for the weakness of each villain, and it doesn’t work.

Two little movies we all remember reverse this beautifully. The villains in ROCKY and THE KARATE KID seem invincible to us, don’t they? Apollo Creed is the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s crazy strong, insanely fast, in incredible shape and everybody with a functioning brain cell in their noggin would bet the farm on him, not the slow, plodding loser they lined up for a publicity stunt of a fight. Johnny also seems like a teenage nightmare, a giant bully who pummels Daniel-san relentlessly.

Rocky and Daniel-san start out as serious underdogs, and they get their butts kicked in all sorts of ways throughout the movie. It’s only at the very end that they eke out a little moral victory. But we don’t care. That little moral victory is more important to us, the audience, than all the beat-downs administered by the tough guy in your average action movie.

Bigger isn’t better. It’s the distance traveled from the beginning to the end. And when you start out cranking it up all the way to 11, and end at 11, you’re not really taking us anywhere.