Why I Outline

Books about writing come in all shapes and sizes, and I try to read a new one every few months to shed light on the writing process. A few that I’ve read from major authors like Stephen King and Isaac Asimov really shook me up. When I read that these guys didn’t like to outline their novels and preferred to “wing it”, three things struck me: 1) these guys seem to have perfect confidence in their talent for writing; 2) these guys obviously have a huge natural talent for writing; 3) no wonder the end of The Stand was a let down.

It’s a little scary to think that I’m five books into A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and there’s no guarantee that he won’t lose his way and start a storyline about Mord the Gaoler’s secret teeth. But the reason these successful authors get paid the big bucks is that they’re consistent and they’ve proven they can deliver. Track record means a lot in the publishing industry. Every novel that Stephen King writes is an immediate best-seller, so that says something.

For anything longer than a few chapters, I outline the whole story before writing any prose. It’s important that the whole of the story is reflected in its parts. If a scene doesn’t bolster the spine of the story, it doesn’t belong. I can really get a kick out of digressive or tangential passages, but they must have a point. Having a fully realized idea about the structure of an entire work allows a writer to create only scenes that fit, scenes that meaningfully turn the story on it’s course through the climax. It all has to be meaningful.

George R. R. Martin has said he likes to give his characters freedom as he writes a scene, and to see what the characters want to do. But for anyone like myself trying to catch the attention of editors and publishers, there is no room for undirected action in a book, script, short story, whatever. Every sentence must show the reader something about the characters or move the story forward (which are really the same thing). If a sentence is pretty but doesn’t reveal anything essential to the story, it must go. Recycle it into poetry, which is more forgiving of stagnant, disconnected thoughts.

Unseasoned writers want to impress people with a unique voice, and so they allow themselves flourishes of “style”. But writing that draws attention from the momentum of the story comes off as self-indulgent to any editor who reads hundreds of stories a month. These authors are missing something crucial: If two authors are told to write the same story as plainly as possible, their stories will still be totally different. Their unconscious writing tendencies make up that difference.

People who try hard to be unique miss the fact that social conditioning, genetics, inner experience, and everything else shape the way they view the world. All of this conditioning effects what people notice in the world around them, what they think about when they hear certain sounds, and how they relate external facts to internal experience. And this fundamental uniqueness is something we can’t get rid of, we can only try to hide it with a facade. As the man says, “This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am.” (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

I used to think I had a way with words until I started noticing embarrassing turns of phrase in my older writing. These were naive attempts to show my unique style instead of being confident in my own uniqueness and striving for clear language. Now I try to shape my thoughts into clear, distinct little packages. For the most part authors do well when they abolish any conscious attempt at style and tell the most honest version of their story. (My favorite champion of clear language is The Underground Grammarian. It’s dry, but hilarious.)

With this in mind, I lay out the biggest beats of my story first so I know they are solid. I might have scenes in mind already, but I put them aside and figure out the major turning points first. Or, if I’m lucky, the scenes I’ve already come up with are the major turning points of the story. When the structure best represents the story I want to tell, I figure out all the other scenes I need to get from point A to point Z, and rough them out. This saves me way more time than it takes to do. More than half of my writing time is devoted to figuring out the structure and what scenes will fulfill that structure.

Once I have my scenes figured out, there are a handful of questions I ask myself to make sure the scenes have essential dramatic elements.

1) Whose scene is it? Stories are told through character, and the plot develops through action. Knowing the central character for each scene keeps the writer and the story on track.

2) What do the characters in the scene want? Characters should want something, as Kurt Vonnegut said, even if it’s just a glass of water. A character who wants nothing isn’t motivated to take action, and whether we’re reading a book or watching a movie, things need to happen in order to move the story along. Otherwise you might as well be looking at a painting.

3) What is the conflict? Story is told through conflict. Don’t try to outfox me and say, “Not necessarily Eric…” because it just is. The conflict can come in any form, but there must be one. Nobody goes to see a movie about people just sitting around having a good time.

4) What is the turning point of this scene? If a character wants something and there’s a conflict, what happens? Well something has to happen, that’s for sure. My character wants a beer (he’s based on me). If he goes to a bar and buys one and drinks it, that’s not interesting writing even if the beer really good. If he goes to a bar but the lineup is huge, that’s conflict. Maybe he’s motivated to try something new or clever to get what he wants. So he cuts in line. But he pisses of an MMA fighter. It’s a turning point. Now he’s forced to make a decision based on his wants. Does he apologize and go across the street to that sketchy biker bar? Does he pretend he to be deaf? Does he decide to order him and the fighter a whiskey? Only to find there’s no single malt!

While my conscious mind is working on all these points to make sure I’m telling a coherent story, my unconscious mind is automatically going to fill in the details I haven’t thought of. In this way the conscious and subconscious mind work together like light and shadow to illuminate the story. There is an adage that authors usually write more than they intend to write. Looking at my older writings I definitely see instances where symbolism has crept in unconsciously. I’m usually impressed at the interesting ways these elements add to the whole. If these elements can work their way into a nice, tight story structure, then we’re off to the races.

For anyone who isn’t widely published and completely confident in their writing, I recommend a thorough outlining process and asking these tough questions about each scene. Honest, economical writing is always in fashion.

 

Centrifugal Farce

[It’s a bad pun, I know. This post is early because I’m seeing Antibalas tomorrow night. – ERS]

Early in university a lifelong friend and physicist told me that centrifugal force didn’t exist. I shook my head and made him repeat it. Maybe I should have figured this out on my own, but it was something I was taught and I never questioned it. Remember that grade school experiment where you wheel a bucket of water around and no water falls out? Of course no water falls out, that’s centrifugal force! Well guess what, there is no measurable radial force acting outward from the center of the orbit.

Even more mind blowing was the fact that just the opposite is true – objects traveling in circular paths were subject to centripetal force which draws them in toward the center of their orbit instead of outward. This seems to contradict experience, but it’s true and provable. We don’t notice it because we don’t have the sensory capacity for it. Usually we’re distracted by the other forces at work.

It turns out that centrifugal force is actually just a name that’s been given to the apparent outward force, which is actually caused by tangential momentum. If you let that bucket go, it doesn’t fly away or toward the center of its orbit (your shoulder), it continues on a straight path at a tangent to its orbit, ninety degrees to the radius (subject to gravity if you’re trying this on Earth). But the continual drag of tangential momentum, the inertia of the payload, levied against the constant circular pull of your arm really does feel like a force traveling outward from the center.

And because tangential momentum always figures in orbital paths, we can actually talk about centrifugal force meaningfully, even if it doesn’t exist or is only a linguistic convenience. The concept of centrifugal force is false but meaningful. It comes to mind that there might be other false but meaningful ideas in use daily.

Euclid laid down the rules of geometry as we know it. We regularly refer to lines, angles, corners, squares and so forth, but there is literally no straight line or perfect circle in nature. We can always look just a little closer to find a flaw. Hell, quantum physics tells us that if we zoom in to a small enough scale, things are fundamentally amorphous and fuzzy. But we can still use the principles of Euclid’s geometry to do useful things within our fuzzy world. There are other kinds of geometry that are equally valid but are simply not as popular.

Utility drives our language. Human beings have needed different concepts for different times, so language has developed over our entire history. Animals running through the forest need to be differentiated so I can communicate that the animal salivating behind you is a tiger, not your neanderthal wife. Inuit languages have many words for snow, Sanskrit has many words for inner states, and the language of politics is full of bureaucratic bullshit.

Concepts don’t have to be true to be useful. The Ptolemaic system made sense to them back then, even if it’s laughable by today’s standards. That’s something to keep in mind when scientists get pompous – two hundred years from now people will be shaking their heads and saying, “Can you believe how primitive their understanding was?”

“[A}ny hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way; but … when it has served this purpose by luck, it is likely to become an obstacle to further advance.”

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

This is kind of like the placebo effect. When subjects in drug tests are given sugar pills with the standard accompanying medical ritual, the drugs often work because people believe they will. In fact, they often work better than the real drugs. If we can convince ourselves of the validity of a proposition, we open ourselves to its functionality. This is why I don’t like to trash talk religions and belief systems. If it works, use it. As John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right, it’s all right.”

Interestingly, we don’t need to consciously believe something for the placebo effect to work. Our subconscious or unconscious impulses can do the work for us. In fact there’s no need to hold on tightly to beliefs. After all, we can believe something and be wrong. And if we identify ourselves with a belief system, we’ll tend to clash with opposing belief systems. But its more useful to take what we need, use what works, and move along on our own orbit.

Get yourself into the head-space of someone who believes something you don’t. It’s a fun experiment. And let someone prove one of your beliefs wrong. That’s not so fun at first, but feels better in the long run. Either way, it’s growth.

[Note: By reading this post you are subject to The Schiller Effect, which obligates you to buy a Schiller a beer the next time you see him or her. Something with a decent hop bill too, don’t get cute.]

The Sound of Confusion

The different types of music I’ve listened to throughout my life seem very clearly to be a reflection of how I saw myself at the time. I’ve played a lot of different types of music in my life and these too seem like outward expressions of my inward states. This seems like straightforward logic, and it should have been fairly obvious, but it’s impossible to say with certainty whether I was drawn to those types of music because of my state of mind, or if I found the music and it then affected my state of mind.

In high school I didn’t meditate. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath instead. I had an interest in drums and my parents were masochistic enough to get me a kit. I made a ton of noise in the basement of Mike Beauchamp until we decided the world needed a new band, so we formed The Moon Patrol, after the Atari game. In those days, mentally, I was going a hundred ways like most high school kids and the music showed it. It was loud, influenced by rock, blues, punk, funk, dub, metal, and we had fun and burned off a lot of steam.

By University I began to think meditation might be for me. I read somewhere that David Lynch used Transcendental Meditation, and since I wanted to make films like his, I looked into it. I never went through with the TM course, but reading books about meditation (The Science of Being and the Art of Living, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Raj Yoga by Swami Vivikenanda) did start me towards understanding and having the language to speak about states of mind. It was obvious to me that toning down the level of noise inside my mind would be a good thing. A few frustrating attempts at meditation didn’t lead anywhere because I think I was more excited to read about meditation than actually do it. But finally a few techniques got me over the hump and I began toning down that chaos.

Coming out of The Moon Patrol I started playing guitar. Banging around on drums was great, but there was something missing. Naturally I sucked at guitar pretty well, but I knew I needed a bit of melody. Friends in another band were having differences of opinion on – what else? – the “direction” of the band. I settled in jamming with these guys. The music didn’t have any definite direction at all. It just built and flowed and didn’t change much, and we all loved it.

Bloemfontein (with friends Brian, Matt, and Mike) was more like cinema score than anything you’d hear on the radio. (A little while after we started playing regularly, a similar band Explosions In the Sky got quite big scoring the movie Friday Night Lights.) There were almost no scripted changes in the music. We’d just start playing. Sometimes the music would build or shift or get quiet and it would just flow along until it broke apart or petered out. It was so simple we were almost embarrassed at how much we liked the way it sounded. We actually listened to this stuff. We played a ton of shows around Windsor and people actually came out and got into it too.

None of the music was abrasive. Some was cheery, some was sad, but it was almost all mellow. The music would just settle in and become almost background to your own thoughts. That’s how I remember it, anyway. And at the time I was getting very used to analyzing or simply observing the flow of thought during meditation.

But then I hit a wall in meditation. I could quiet my mind, but only to a point, and that point shifted around seemingly at random. I now think of this barrier as the intersection of three factors: 1) my will to master my mind and quiet things down in there; 2) my mental inertia (a pattern of scattered thoughts, loosely controlled for twenty years and change); and 3) my fluctuating frustration with meditation based on my successes and failures, how I slept, what I ate, and a host of different typical anxieties.

So despite some early successes quieting my mind, I could no longer reach that point where the mind lets go. When the rational mind lets go you can sometimes feel a surge of bliss and a feeling of unity with everything. I’m pretty sure that this feeling is something we can all feel. I think it’s what they mean when they say “religious ecstasy”. That feeling is what I was after.

Right around 2001 Bardo Pond put out their album Dilate and I saw their live show. Now, this music is distorted, druggy, and full of noise, so it might have turned me off. But it definitely turned me on. I realized that you can get back to that bliss feeling, that feeling of dilation, by soaking your mind in noise. That was a total revelation for me and I became a devotee immediately. And I mean devotee – the music had a the feeling of gnosis to me. I’ve had two out-of-body experiences at their concerts. Actually.

So of course Bloemfontein’s music became a playground for noise. I had a Line 6 Delay Modeler that, to this day, is one of my best purchases. I’d layer guitars with different levels of delay and distortion until it was just a droning wall that would slowly build up under the melody. So before you realized what was happening you’d be just buried in sound. I couldn’t get enough. I stayed up for hours just playing, looping, layering things by myself in a dark basement until it was time to go to school the next day.

I also read all sorts of far-out stuff at this time, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to David Icke. I loved alternate histories, disinformation, postmodernism, and anything that blended truth and fiction. And the stuff I read led me to other art forms, artists, ways of thinking. Once again, I cannot trace the causality of my own mental influence perfectly. I can only point out signposts. I know that Pavement came before Guided By Voices came before The For Carnation, but can’t define the why of it all.

It’s been a long time since Bloemfontein played together, and I’ve since developed new techniques for meditation. But lately I’ve been feeling like I need something more. In meditation I’m adding about five minutes of mental exercise to my regular routine. The urge to make this addition just came recently, but with it was the urge to play more music. I’ve been banging around on an acoustic guitar for years and I’ve worked out a lot of new material that’s a far cry from anything I’ve done before. At the end of the day I don’t care if one causes the other. Because whether it’s music or meditation, I just want something that gives me that feeling of ecstatic union.

I’ve recorded a scant few tunes since I’ve lived in Toronto. This one, called “Homecoming”, is only a demo so the quality isn’t great. But it’s probably as close as I’ve come to blending quiet and noise in one track. I recorded it under the name Dwale, an archaic term for a delirium-causing potion. Beware…it’s very, very mellow.

iTunes vs. Kabbalah

The post this week is a Battle Of Unrelated Things. iTunes is a modern technology, a software for personal convenience. Kabbalah is an ancient soft technology with religious, astrological, alchemical, and ontological implications.

iTunes

The modern world wants music at its fingertips. Technology has made this possible, affordable, and easy to use. It’s simple – why wouldn’t you want the ability to listen to your favorite music any time you like? Music can pass the time, can act as background to our day, or can offer us artistic insights and emotional experiences depending on the attention we’re willing to devote to it. Music is a fundamental human expression, and considering the unending variety of available music, there should be something for everyone.

iTunes was a transition for me. I was used to putting music on my PC and organizing it into file folders, then importing the music into a Windows Media Player playlist. Of course when I got my Mac I switched to iTunes and immediately felt cheated of the ability to organize the files myself. Of course I could organize things myself, but iTunes does things slightly differently.

iTunes is made to be very user friendly. It’s handy because it organizes files into an efficient working order. It doesn’t bother the user with a transparent view to its processes. When I drag my songs into it, I can listen to them immediately. I can change all the data about the song right in iTunes and it will reorganize things along its own lines. Then I can sort and arrange my music by song title, artist, genre, release date, my personal rating, the number of times I’ve listened to the track, and so forth. iTunes handles the mystery for us and offers us slick, efficient functionality. This shrouding of processes allows us to “get to the music” straight away, which is exactly what makes it so popular.

iTunes and the digital music revolution has likely changed musical media forever. Our children, and especially our children’s children, will probably have a hard time understanding that people used to spool magnetic tape through a machine, keep 12″ vinyl discs stacked on shelves, or had cases and cases of CDs in racks on the wall for use in a dedicated machine. The musical experience is now much more direct, more accessible, and more convenient on every level. Though sound fidelity in digital media is less than most previous media technologies, the popularity of MP3 players and iTunes has proven that people are willing to trade this gap in quality for convenience.

Kabbalah

Kabbalah is a mystery school that came out of Judaism. Christians have their gnostics, Muslim’s have their Sufis, the Buddhists have their various vehicles, and all religions seem to have curiously secretive “inner orders” that separate the esoteric from the exoteric.

Hebrews didn’t have a numerical system like the Arabs, or even the Romans, and didn’t need our familiar decimal system to do complicated mathematics. So they used their letters to denote numbers. Thus in Kabbalah every letter, and every word has a numerical equivalent (by adding up the number values of the letters). They started to wonder if it “meant something” that the word they used in the Book of Genesis for “Messiah” had the same number as the word “Serpent”. They might have blown this off as a coincidence, but when they looked more deeply into the material they noticed all kinds of odd and amazing equivalences. Some believe the Bible was written as a type of Kabbalistic code with a secret inner meaning for those initiated into Kabbalistic mysteries. We can argue this, but cannot prove it either way.

The history and development of Kabbalah is unclear, but along the way each number/letter picked up a great deal of correspondences. For starters, the letter beth (our B) also means “house” in Hebrew, as every Hebrew letter is a word with a specific meaning. How could they avoid finding strange coincidences in their language now? The letter beth opens the Bible (the first word in the Hebrew Bible is Berashith), and the Bible houses the Word of God – that has to mean something, right? But then astrological correspondences made their way into the Kababalah lore, then magic and mysticism worked its way into the system (not necessarily in that order). Suddenly everywhere the rabbis looked they saw a sign from God (also known as YHVH = Yod Heh Vau Heh = 10 + 5 + 6 + 5 = 26).

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, an elegant construction of ten sephiroth and twenty-two paths make up a symbol for the entirety of creation. Kabbalists studied the intricate connections and correspondences and found the symbol readily adaptable to all kinds of spiritual issues from astrology to ontology. The Tree of Life filtered out of Judaism and spread through the West, becoming Cabala for Christians and Qabalah for different mystery schools like The Golden Dawn. It’s hard to find many Western magical traditions that don’t use the Tree of Life as a symbolic basis.

As Kabbalists, or Cabalists, or Qabalists, study the meanings, correspondence, and connections of the Tree, they notice their brains start to work differently. Everyday symbols can take on universal or spiritual implications. Practitioners use the Tree of Life like a filing cabinet to sort personal experience, and the more they study it, the more they notice special or holy meaning in existence. Learning this system actually changes the rational brain, training it to look for esoteric symbols and find meaning for one’s personal mythos. (The Middle Path of the Tree, the most direct line to the highest, includes Malkuth, Yesod, Tiphareth, and Kether, 10 + 9 + 6 + 1 = 26 = YHVH. Coincidence?)

Light and Dark

iTunes and Kabbalah represent different philosophies completely, and only in part because they have nothing to do with one another. iTunes stresses the end result (the music) by keeping the underlying systems in the dark, out of sight, out of mind. Kabbalah is an underlying system for life, putting the sorting, cataloging, and interconnection into the light where we can see everything.

For those with a lot on the go – jobs, kids, school, and the whole hectic schedule imposed by contemporary popular culture – iTunes represents exactly what is needed in a modern tool. The intended function comes first, and the process is handled invisibly so people can get on with their busy days. Bless you Apple.

For those with cerebral or spiritual inclinations Kabbalah is a beautiful, endless world of thought that encourages analysis of the underlying processes that make up our very existence. Those into Kabbalah can dive into thought and swim forever in the mystery of life, God, and the Universe.

Though I couldn’t live without music, I have to give the BOUT to Kabbalah. Kabbalah inspires creative introspection and creative perception and increases the plasticity of mind. A good Kabbalist can argue anything, and avoids binary, off/on logic, favouring an inspection of connections and transmutation.

Plus, who doesn’t prefer vinyl as a musical medium?

 

From the album “Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy”