Jan 092015
If necessity is the mother, "what if" is the daddy.

If necessity is the mother, “what if” is the daddy.

What if you built a golf course in the desert?

What if you made a computer so simple your grandfather could run it? Then, what if you made that computer into a work of art rather than just a plain white box?

What if you made a car that even working folks could afford?

What if a military-grade superflu wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population and the survivors had to recreate society? What if they had to choose between good and evil while doing so?

What if a company tries a contest to attract customers and everything goes wrong? What if it decides killing the winners is the answer? (Whoops, that one was mine.)

What if you took a pop tune and gave it a jazz treatment?

What if you were able to replicate a dinosaur’s DNA and turn that idea into an amusement park? (Don’t try this at home, kids.)

What if you could create a hamburger that can be made quickly, in enough volume to serve billions and tasting the same every time?

“What if” is one of the roots of all creative processes. Architect David Rockwell thinks so. He says he’s into hybrids — nailing together two things that were never nailed together before, as George Carlin once said.

Mel Brooks told the Los Angeles Times about the birth of one of his movies, and how it came from actor Gene Wilder’s what-if:

“I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of Blazing Saddles somewhere in the Antelope Valley, and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein. I said not another — we’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don’t need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, “That’s funny.”

The result, Young Frankenstein, gave us one of the great comedy scenes of all time:

That same question, in some iteration or other, gave us things like Palm Springs, the MacIntosh and iEverything, the Model T, Stephen King’s The Stand, John Coltrane’s greatest works, Jurassic Park and McDonalds. Yeah, some of these innovations worked out a little better than others, but you get the idea.



Jun 282013
pot with potatoes

Sometimes you have to slow-cook your idea.

Funny thing about this creative business. Some ideas are best executed quickly; hit ’em and ship ’em while they’re hot. Others require a lot more time.

Besides telling which project is which, the trick is to let an idea sit for a while without any interference. It’s that watched-pot analogy at work.

Journalists will tell you all about deadlines. I sure can, from all my years of hanging around newsrooms. Most newspaper types navigate a network of these deadlines. We know when an issue is supposed to hit the press and work backward from there. Page designers have a deadline. Editors have several. Photographers have some, and reporters have a few. We always know when we’re getting close to deadline when we hear the managing editor behind us, racking his shotgun. Everything’s time sensitive, no extensions, no grace periods, no manana.

Even in my online freelance work, deadlines are a fact of life. True, some of the steps — page makeup and printing — are gone but a deadline is still a deadline.

Best work I ever did as a jornalist was a series of stories that, I think, got me some award or other. But I went away thinking, if I had just one more day to develop this and one more page to fill, this is really gonna be good.

As important as those deadlines are, they sure get in the way.


Crock pots and microwaves

But some projects don’t lend themselves well to deadlines. They just need time to develop. Rather than throwing them in the microwave you’re dumping them into the crock pot.

I’m thinking about longer, more ambitious works here. Great works of fiction. Outstanding musical compositions. That fantastic sculpture. You start with an idea and … then what?

That’s when it gets good.

If the idea’s not time sensitive, you can dump it in the crock pot. Or better, write it down somewhere. Put it on your long-range to-do list.

Then forget about it.

That’s when the cool stuff happens. The idea starts to grow.

You’re always working on it. Sure you are, only no one knows. Maybe not even yourself. It sits in your subconscious, where all the creatures in the attic have their way with it.

The old-school way is to give this project its very own file folder and add any supporting items or anything pertinent and interesting. Let the whole thing sit, give those creatures something to play with, and pull it out after a good slow roast. Somewhere along the line some sort of structure and a gazillion ideas have sprouted.

(Of course, since we’re trying to keep a paperless office and quit killing so many trees, you can probably figure out a digital version of this. Electrons and disk space can be killed with impunity.)

But this aging thing is why so many writers like to have a time lag between first and second drafts. You hammer out that first draft at a dizzying pace and let it sit for a month or two. Stephen King says he gives it a minimum of six weeks, during which time he works on something else — like a short story. I tend to go with the Biblical time standard of 40 days and 40 nights. That’s close to six weeks.

But that’s when I’ll take the manuscript out of hiding, blow the dust and cobwebs off and attack it with my red editing pen. Or whatever the digital equivalent is these days.

I remember reading something in a high school English class. Some prolific writer of the day — I can’t remember who — said she lets those loose ideas and concepts “roost in my head.” After a sufficient roosting time she’s writing like mad. Off her explanation I’ll assume that’s her first draft; subsequent work takes a lot more time and care than that.

But with that roosting/slow roasting time, I find it’s best to just plain forget about the whole thing.

Just keep it off my mind.

Those attic creatures do their best work when I’m not hanging around trying to supervise.


Would you read “A Bunch Of People In Boulder?”

When King worked on The Stand, he had some 500 single-spaced manuscript pages and realized he’d written himself into a corner. His Superflu survivors were in Boulder, Colorado trying to rebuild a decimated society, then … what? He had no clue.

But this problem — call it a form of writer’s block as if such a thing really exists — threatened to derail his project.

If it wasn’t for that 500-page investment he probably would have quit.

He tried everything to save it, and nothing seemed to work.

He’d take long walks, trying to untangle the mess he’d created.

The Appalachian Trail

Sometimes that idea comes unexpectedly, and you can’t do anything with it right away.

It wasn’t until another long walk “when I was thinking of nothing much at all” that a solution started to take shape — what’s wrong with blowing up half the major characters and sending the rest on a no-chance quest into the enemy’s lair to take their stand?

Not only did this get the story moving and give him a way to end the novel, but it became the theme and the title. Got to admit, “The Stand” sounds a whole lot better than “A Bunch Of People In Boulder.” Which book would you buy?

King says this piece of an idea came so quickly and so unexpectedly he ran home so he could write it all down. He was that afraid of forgetting it.


Memos from the creatures in the attic

It’s stupid how that works. I’m one of those guys who always carries a pen and index cards with me, and those great project-moving ideas always seem to come at me when I can’t get to those tools.

Like when I’m on the bicycle dodging trucks and crazy people.

When I’m hiking up some mountain where I need both hands and maybe a flashlight.

When I’m in the shower or swinging that weed whacker around in my front yard or (ewwww!) cleaning out my refrigerator.

When I’m talking to someone and it would be impolite to stop everything while I jot that idea down.

When I’m not thinking about it.

That’s when those creatures are manically working. Their timing may be inconvenient, but I’ll take their memos anyway.

# # #

Talk to me: Do those great project-moving ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them? What do you do when that happens? Share in the comments.


May 272013
broken computer

Losing access to those tech toys can be traumatic …

I once gave up the Internet, and it was the longest 20 minutes of my life.

That’s the new spin on an old joke, and it really rings true for me.

It’s not so much the Internet, though. I don’t spend time gazing at cat pictures or whatever viral video is out this week. I go online with a mission in mind, and even then someone sure stole my watch. I mean time dissolves into a puddling mass. Kind of like dumping water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

I don’t even bother much with social media. OK, I’ll tweet a lot and catch some news trends on Twitter, but that’s about it. The others, particularly Facebook, are a waste of my time and brain cells.

Being mission-centric when I go online, I head for the news. This spills over from my journo years, when I read several newspapers a day. But now, instead of dead trees I’m manically checking my RSS feeds.

Yeah, RSS. That old-school thing that never really caught on except maybe with the geeky crowd. That RSS. You put all your online subscriptions in a feed reader and watch them pile up. Flip through your news from dozens of sources, scan the headlines, choose what to read.

Using that (allegedly dying) technology I keep up with local and national news, potential client leads, publishing and media news, material for this blog, and updates on how my L.A. Angels are doing. In a day at least 1,000 news items go through my reader, and I’m probably going to read at least a couple of hundred.

On July 1, Google Reader will shut down, leaving me looking for RSS alternatives. Like a true addict, I’m scrambling right now. But that’s just part of the picture.

On Friday I had some online time, so I spent that updating my laptop operating system while reading the news on my Android phone.

That’s bad.

I understand the idea of shutting off all digital toys for one day a week is gaining some real traction. Supposedly it’s good for one’s mental health. Especially mine, as I am probably crazier than most and have the certification to prove it.

Despite that, sometimes I’m successful at actually going one day a week without the computer or anything else. One drawback is that I keep a reminder to take that day off … on my Android phone.

Of course I spent Sunday (my scheduled time off) at the computer again, hammering away like a deranged beaver, but I was doing the final draft of my latest ebook. Between that and those consarned RSS feeds, you know that whole idea was shot this time.


How prevalent is this addiction?

I’m not the only junkie around, though. I read that the average American consumes 100,500 words per day, a goodish amount. Considering a novel normally runs about 70,000 to 90,000 words, we’re approaching doorstop territory here. Now, you can bet most of these words are read from a computer screen and you know there’s an online connection involved somewhere.

But that’s the average American. With me, you can take that number and double it. Shoot, at that rate I can knock off Stephen King’s The Stand in less than a day.

A lot of random drugs

Drugs have nothing on the grip technology gets on you.

So when I read a piece suggesting a digital detox of a week or two, my eyeballs slid back into my skull.

Sam Hailes, who wrote the article, cites an article from the Observer about a guy who did a two-week digital detox. His wife said he was more fun to be around. He cooked more, read more, walked more. I assume he even went outside.

Hailes wrote the article (for ReadWriteWeb, a tech blog from my RSS feeds) but admitted he’s no expert on digital detox.

“It’s no use asking me,” he wrote. “There’s only one way to find out. Are you brave enough to try it?”

Uhh, no. Definitely chicken. Clucka clucka cluck.

If one digital-free day is that tough for me, how could I handle a week or two? Don’t ask. Don’t. Even. Ask.


Enforced sabbatical, or going into detox

The closest I ever really came to digital detox was four days on the Appalachian Trail last year. That was because a) the backpack was already heavily loaded — sleeping bag and food weigh a lot when you’re toting it up a mountain, b) there’s no place to plug it in on the trail, and c) there’s not even enough signal to check my email. My hiking buddy is as much a phone freak as I am an online junkie, and we had to wait until we were on top of some mountain before he could make calls.

Can you imagine? I couldn’t check my news while drinking my morning campfire coffee. How Philistine is that?

So how was I after the hike? Besides tired, sore and smelly, that is.

Again, don’t ask. Itching to crank up the Android to see what I missed. Not a lot, it turned out. The news was still there whether I was or not.

The only reason I didn’t notice any separation anxiety or withdrawal symptoms was because I was busy climbing Mt. Sassafrass.


Maybe there’s something to this …

But really, I felt refreshed. Mind clear. Don’t know if it was the hike or being away from all that tech stuff.

I spent more time on the hike talking to real live people, getting their stories, enjoying the view, eating tuna for lunch and prepackaged rations for dinner, hanging our chow from a tree limb so the bears couldn’t get at it. The Android sat in a waterproof box, buried deep in my backpack, shut down the whole time.

But a real eye-opener was that I came back with a headful of ideas. I already scratched out some ideas for a future ebook in my notebook by firelight, and had another brewing in the cranium. It’s that second one that I attacked as soon as I got home. I outlined it and wrote much of the first draft in one sitting.

Maybe I’m still riding that creative wave. Hope so.

But I wasn’t taking chances on the hike. I mean, when you’re addicted to something, there’s always the chance of relapse. To that end, I kept spare batteries in the backpack. So call me a wuss.

A two-week digital detox?

Don’t bet the ranch on that, pal.

Sounds wonderful. Liberating. It might even drive me sane.

But don’t expect me to try it anytime soon unless it’s a long hike.

H’mm. Maybe I should take that digital day off next Sunday. But write the reminder down in longhand instead of keeping it on the phone.

# # #

Jul 272012

I have this recurring nightmare.

I’m doing the stuff I do, writing, playing music, using my gifts and even impressing myself sometimes. Then the drape is torn off and I’m exposed as a gigantic fraud.

A humbug. A wannabe. Someone who has no business hanging around even the back row of the creative’s hiring hall. Get out of the penthouse, boy. Get your, uhh, self back in the servants’ quarters where you belong.

I tried explaining this to my shrink some years ago and couldn’t get her to understand my nightmare. Maybe I didn’t explain myself well. She chalked it up as a self-image issue (I plead guilty), but she wasn’t real experienced at working with those creative types who are wired bass-ackwards.

From hanging around other creatives, I’m coming to the conclusion this nightmare is an occupational hazard. We are, in our minds, walking a tightrope. We’re one typo, one dangled participle, one blown cue, one dissonant skronk away from exposure.

Stephen King tells about this nightmare in The Stand. His character, a singer named Larry Underwood, has That Dream where he goes on stage with his band for their biggest show ever, and the mics are welded to their stands, nine feet high. Nothing he could do to budge those microphones, to make the equipment usable. The audience (with some truly bizarre characters in the front row) boos Underwood off the stage before he could sing a note.

Now, that’s one weird dream. It’s enough to make a guy swear off spicy food. But if you’re creative and serious about it, you’ve probably had a variation of this dream.

Now, that’s subconscious stuff. But in our waking moments, we’re still our own worst critics. That Dream haunts us in our waking hours; truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Even in my finest moment in journalism (something about a major AP award), I wasn’t all that impressed. I remember thinking, not a half bad piece of reporting. Now if I had one more day to research and some more space to write, it might actually be pretty good.

When my old band recorded a demo CD, we all listened to it the first time and wondered if a shotgun blast to the guts would really be as painful as people say. All of us found fault with our own performances. Never mind what the other folks listening to it may think, we know better. And we’re frauds; the con is on.

I’m not even talking about those times when we feel stuck before the breakthrough, but this is an overall feeling we get pretty regularly. Even applause does nothing to dispell this feeling — do they not know?

Carole King spent years as one of the best songwriters around, and in the early 1970s she put together an album of her own, Tapestry. Probably one of the greatest albums ever recorded. But she spent the aftermath wondering what she was doing in the penthouse. Does the audience not know?

I wish I had answers to this. Whoever does is either full of it or he deserves the Nobel Prize.    

I guess the best way to cope with this is for me to remind myself that it’s just a bunch of bad self-talk, a product of my own goofy imagination. As far as reality goes, the audience probably won’t notice the flaws, and if they do, so what? Still, I feel like I’m just baffling ’em with … well, you know.

In the meantime I keep at my work, even if it’s just for the practice. Finish it, ship it, take my chances. If I’m a fraud today, maybe I’ll be less of a fraud tomorrow.