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Monday, October 21, 2019

How to Develop Discernment and Wisdom



Last week I wrote about the importance of (repeated) failure, and while I have plenty to say about all that stuff, I thought I'd said enough on my blog. After some more thinking, though, I realized I wanted to do a follow-up on how, exactly that process works, on a micro level.

Remember, repeated failure paired with perseverance leads to a greater capacity for discernment, which is necessary to obtain wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to reconcile opposites. But "opposite" is an English word that leaves me wanting. Because they aren't always direct opposites, but rather, things that differ in some degree, like how pewter gray differs from steel gray. Both are gray, but they are still different. (Maybe wisdom is the ability to reconcile differences, but I'm not sure on that word either.) Anyway . . .

This is useful to writing, because the more you can discern and the more "writer wisdom" you have, the better you can write with precision. But really, this applies to almost everything in life. Every failure. And even things that aren't failures.

Like I said last time, often we are taught with black and white principles. That makes complete sense. We don't have the time nor energy to address all the grays, which are essentially infinite. There are infinite shades of grays just as there are an infinite amount of numbers between 0 and 1 (1.01, 1.1, 1.27 . . .).

But black and white principles are also important because we need them to get us introduced to the subject to begin with, to give us some guidance, some boundaries. We need them so we can be grounded in something, to start with. We don't teach a child to count by having them go from 1 to 1.000001 to 1.000002 . . . it's too much! Instead, we teach them the basics, give them the guideposts, and then later have them encounter the grays. (Surprise dear child, there is actually an infinite amount of numbers between 1 and 2!)

In reality, it's like this with almost everything. Most of the blacks and whites are man-made anyway, to help us have the capacity to perceive the world around us at all. And we are limited by the boundaries of our language, but . . . I do not want to get more confusing than necessary. 😆

So let's get to an example, so you know what the heck I'm talking about!

Say you are a child that has recently learned how to categorize animals (mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and arthropods).



You have been given (man-made (whoops, promised not to over complicate)) guidelines for how to discern what animal fits where.

You run into a snake. Easy, it has scales (and is cold-blooded)--clearly a reptile.

You run into a robin in a nest. Easy, it has feathers and a nest of eggs--clearly a bird.

You run into a cat. Easy, it has fur, drinks milk, and has live births--a mammal.

But then something weird happens.

You discover a platypus.



It's swimming in the water. It has a bill like a duck. A tail like a beaver. Fur like an otter. Webbed feet like an amphibian. Lays eggs like a reptile. And feeds its babies with milk (but doesn't have nipples?).

It doesn't seem to fit the principles you've been taught!

In other words, it doesn't fit the black and white guidelines. It's a "gray."

Naturally, as you try to make sense of this, and study the platypus, hoping to categorize it, a few things will happen.

First will probably be confusion.



Holding on to what you've been taught (after all, those are the rules for animals), you may try, unsuccessfully, to make sense of it by putting it into one of the categories.

Well, it feeds its babies with milk, so it must be a mammal.

But that doesn't work.

You were taught that mammals don't lay eggs.

But birds, reptiles, and fish don't have fur.

As you try again and again to unsuccessfully categorize it, you naturally invite in feelings of frustration and disappointment. I mean, who wouldn't be frustrated trying to categorize a platypus when you have been given strict guidelines?

Now, remember, this is a simplistic example/metaphor. Stay with me.

As you keep trying and failing to categorize this animal, a few things happen.



1 - Either you come to the conclusion that you are the problem, that you are doing something wrong (and therefore must be stupid) . . .

or . . .

2 - What you have been taught is wrong.

If you take route one, you may start to internalize failure. You might get stuck in a depressing loop, thinking you did something wrong.

If you take route two, you may bring into question everything you've been taught to be true. "These categories can't be right!" you say. "This creature doesn't fit into any of them! And these are all the categories there are!! I've been taught wrong all this time!" ðŸ˜Ą

People in the first category have the tendency to quit.

People in the second category have the tendency to jump ship too early.

People in the first category may feel depressed, insecure, and sad.

People in the second category may feel angry, wronged, or cheated.

But in reality, a lot of times, neither of those routes are actually accurate.

It's a platypus. It has nothing to do with you being stupid. It has nothing to do with you being taught "wrong." It's a gray creature.



Just because you can't get it to fit in with everything else doesn't mean you are doing something wrong.

And just because you can't get it to fit in with what your teacher taught doesn't mean they are wrong.

It's not necessarily wrong to teach a child to count from 1 to 2 to 3. It's just that real life is much more complex than that. Some mammals lay eggs. Some reptiles have feathers. Some fish have live births. You can try to cling to the black and white all you want, but that's just the way reality is.

Sometimes there are platypuses, and dinosaurs, and molly fish, and steel gray and pewter gray.

So you have to look at the third route, which is that, this platypus is a gray. It doesn't actually fit the generalizations of any of the categories, but as you study it, you begin to discern more detailed things about it, and you are able to reconcile the oppositions it embodies. "Okay, well," you say, "maybe a mammal can lay eggs, even if that's unusual."

I admit, that even classifying a platypus as a mammal still seems questionable to me, as they actually do have significant similarities to birds and reptiles--but like I said at the beginning, the categories are all man-made anyway. They only exist to help us perceive the world. In other words, to help us discern. Even the basic categories (mammal, reptile, fish, etc.) are only there to help us discern the difference in animals in general. But someone somewhere decided that a platypus fit best as a mammal, but in order to get it to fit, they had to be more specific, by calling it a "monotreme mammal," which means, we now have the power to discern in even more detail.

But lots of people, loyal to the black and white beginner principles of the world, want to deny that 1.000001 exists, that pewter gray exists, that platypuses exist--figuratively speaking of course.

In fact, I think all of us probably do this to some degree.

See, in order to see those things, to gain more discernment and wisdom, we have to be willing to look at opposition--things that oppose (to some degree) our own thoughts and perceptions, maybe even personal beliefs.

Because if I'm dead set that the "Show, don't Tell" writing rule is always right, and I run into a book that uses telling very good, I'm going to have a problem--there's conflict. It is in opposition to my beliefs.

Now, like I mentioned last time, some of us would actually rather be blind to the grays and platypuses, because we are too loyal to the blacks and whites. We refuse to see them. In fact, we may refuse to believe that such opposition even exists. We'd rather live in a state of ignorance and innocence, in our own figurative Eden.

Sometimes, we are afraid of seeing the 1.000001, because that means we have to change our perspective, that 2 always comes directly after 1.

It also means that we aren't getting the self assurance, the validation, that our initial beliefs and understandings are right. We may have to face . . . opposing concepts. 

In fact, sometimes acknowledging gray exists may even be painful . . . or ugly.

But not always.

Opposition creates confusion, which can lead to disappointment and frustration, which can potentially lead to low self esteem or us questioning the correctness of the beliefs we use to govern our lives. These are feelings much of us try to avoid.

But in reality, complexity happens when opposition collides. How can a platypus lay eggs, give milk, and have a duck bill? The space between those seeming contradictions, the answers that justify that existence, is exactly what creates complexity. As a result, we have to become more discerning and precise. We have to figure out how to reconcile the opposites. The result is where wisdom lies.

Ironically, we seem to live in a world that wants to move away from opposition--but considering the seemingly negative emotions involved otherwise, it shouldn't be too surprising. The world would have you surround yourself with only like-minded people, teachings, and ideas, which can stunt growth. If everything were always black and white, you'd never learn to discern, you'd never learn wisdom, you'd never learn to judge accurately.

But, on the other hand, when you do see grays, you need to make sure you don't always internalize them as personal failures or abandon all your previously established truths.

Instead, slow down, study, and discern. Work to reconcile the differences. Refine specificity.

This is what it means to be wise.

***

Don't worry, next week I'll be back with a regular writing tip :)

Monday, October 14, 2019

Exactly Why Failure is Key to Exceptional Success





Over the last few years, I've heard a lot of people talking about how important failure is in our lives, and yet, I feel like no one has adequately explained *exactly* WHY and *exactly* HOW that works. More and more I've been gaining a greater understanding of failure, and today, I'll attempt to share what I've learned. Will I succeed? You be the judge. 😉

But before I get too far, I want to take a moment to acknowledge two different ways the term "failure" is used, because that affects the meaning of this post.

Some people use "failure" to mean giving up, the final quit. In this sense, the phrase, "You only fail if you quit" is true (I've said that same phrase on my blog).

Other people use "failure" to mean any kind of mess up, mistake, or error.

A lot of us use it both ways, which can make a conversation about it confusing.

While in the past, I've usually meant the first definition, today I'm using it as the second definition: mess up, mistake, error.

There are so many interconnected parts of failure's purpose in life, that it's hard to know where to start, but I will begin with the familiar and build up to the most profound and important.


(Why) Failing Sucks



This is definitely the most familiar. We've all failed, and we've all known what that feels like.

No one genuinely enjoys failure. It's not fun. And it can make you feel stupid.

The more failures you accumulate, one after another, the more frustrated and disappointed you will become.

To be honest, I've been dealing with this a lot lately.

You see, I have a few specific scenes left to fix in my manuscript, and I can't for the life of me figure them out. I literally worked on it diligently for over a month. And while I made some headway, it wasn't much, and I'm largely just as stuck.

So, I've been accumulating lots of failures. And naturally I've been dealing with regular feelings of frustration, disappointment, and even depression. Heck, I've even gotten to the point of asking existential questions.

But guess what? Any normal person in this same situation would feel those same feelings. I mean, seriously? Over a month? For me that means I've spent about 80 hours on it. Who wouldn't be frustrated? Disappointed? Depressed? Questioning life choices?

This is completely normal. And contrary to how you feel, it's not actually a bad thing. Sure, your emotions are a part of you and your existence, but you need to learn to rise above them, not be ruled by them.

Recently I read this in an article:

What feels like struggle and frustration is often skill development and growth. . . . In other words, what looks like failure is often the foundation of success.

I've heard others talk about how feelings of confusion are actually simply signals to your brain that you are about to learn something new.

These emotions may feel negative to your well-being at the time, but they actually aren't bad, and they definitely aren't evil.

They simply mean you are entering a skill development phase. This is completely true, and in the process of this post, you'll see why, specifically.

Now, some of you may have actually been embarrassed for me when I said I've spent 80 hours trying to fix a few scenes; maybe you even thought you were better than that. Maybe you are ðŸĪ·‍♀️ but this is also another reason why failing sucks. Not only do you naturally deal with feelings of frustration, disappointment, maybe existential questions, but you have to deal with others, our culture, and society, which has often taught us failure is something to be ashamed and embarrassed about, in other words, it's not accepted. In other words, we have even another reason to avoid it.

To be fair, it's almost impossible in our classrooms and society to adequately incorporate failure, for reasons I'll explain later. It just doesn't work--it's not realistic.


Why Exactly Perseverance is so Important



Because failing, especially repeated failing, naturally invites feelings of frustration, disappointment, and depression, along with ridicule, shame, and embarrassment, it requires something else to carry you over to those new skills: perseverance.

It's such a cliche, that you might want to skip ahead, but trust me, you don't.

Like we said, failing is not fun. But often failing means you have the opportunity to learn a new skill. But you can only learn that new skill if you keep going. We've all been taught this.

But there is something else to be gained: experience.

The first time you run into a specific failure and choose to push on to success, your experience is like this line, small and thin. I kind of think of it as a little indentation in a trail you took.

Yes, Paint has been useful for my blog again! Notice the thin line.


The next time you do that, your experience is like this line. It's a little deeper, a little stronger, in the trail.



The next time you do that, your experience is like this line.



The next time you do that, your experience is like this line. Bolder, clearer, stronger, like a deep rut in the path.

This line is more obvious/clearer. It's "stronger."


All of our choices and experiences accumulate within us. Every time we choose to persevere to success, the clearer our path becomes next time, even if the subject matter is different.

Why?

Because every time we persevere and make it through a hard time, it becomes a little easier to make it through the next hard time. Because we've already done hard things, we can do more hard things (we can take the rut in the trail). We know we can. And even if this situation is something harder, our past experience informs us we are capable of figuring it out. It all accumulates and becomes clearer.

This in turn relates directly to growing in confidence. A lot of teens and young adults struggle with confidence. Why? Well, one part is because they have not yet accumulated enough experience to perceive the clear path. How are you supposed to be confident in which way to go, if you've never gone that way before? It might seem like a fool's confidence to pretend you know. This is where the concept of faith comes in. You need to exercise faith the first few times, but once you accumulate experiences, the paths and consequences become clearer. You don't need to "try" to be confident. You will be, because you know.

Each experience builds.

Sure, prior to that, you may need to get help and direction, from tools or people who already know the way. You exercise faith by trying it out, getting results, and evaluating that experience. As that accumulates, eventually you will be confident and know.

Unfortunately, though, this sort of thing also happens in the reverse. . . .

Imagine you have the choice whether or not to persevere.

And you quit.

First path of quitting


And the next time you quit.



And the next time you quit.



And the next time you quit.

Quitting becomes the more obvious path to take. It's a "stronger" path because you've taken it so many times.


You've now accumulated a bunch of quitting experiences, making it even harder to take those first few journeys of faith. Why? Because all you've ever done is quit. Worse, because that is what you've always ever done, you may just assume you are doomed to do that to yourself again.

There is hope.

And do you want to know a secret?

I think the first few leaps of faith almost always suck, regardless of past experiences. Because you don't yet know. Leaps of faith are scary! They've made me restless for nights on end, made me want to throw up my breakfast, made me have existential questions. But to this day, I will tell you that none of them have been as hard as the first significant one I took, exactly because it was the first one I took. (I won't go into the story because it's long and personal.) I realize that might sound depressing for a few people, but think of it this way--all the other leaps will likely be easier because you already did it once!

And sometimes, it's helpful to not put the faith in yourself; after all, you don't yet have the accumulated experience to give you the knowledge that paves the way to confidence. It might be easier to imagine putting your faith in God, the universe, "Truth," a mentor, or someone more experienced than you (for me it's God, but not everyone shares my beliefs). Trust them, and then leap. Then see what happens and evaluate.

I realize like with everything, there are exceptions. There always are, especially when you talk about abstract concepts like, faith, perseverance, and failure. Since they aren't concrete things, we have to use generalization to even create the concept in the first place (though some would argue we do that with all words of language, but let's leave that for the college classrooms today).

Perseverance is important, because without it, you'll never get the skills needed to find exceptional success.

Sure, you can get some success without failure and perseverance, but you'll never get exceptional success.

One Difference Between Consistent Quitters and Exceptional Success . . . ors



In my current journey of regular failures and bouts of frustration and disappointment, et. al, I've been listening to a lot of speeches about failure when I get ready in the mornings. In fact, I've listened to some speakers talk about studies that have even been done on consistent quitters and consistently successful people. One key thing really stuck out to me.

Observers have noticed that consistent quitters internalize failure.

Consistently successful people, don't.

There is a typical process that goes on when you are trying to do something difficult.

1. You start working on something
2. It gets hard
3. You can't figure it out
4. You try and fail and try and fail
5. Because you fail so much, you beat yourself up, and decide you suck.
6. You keep trying (or quit).

People who are consistently successful, skip step five. Because they don't internalize the failure--they don't make it about them being no good, but only the problem itself being very difficult--they don't quit, and they find more success.

This is way easier said than done.

Years and years ago, I was always a number five stepper. ALWAYS. And you know what? It was the worst! Sometimes I'd even crawl in my bed when I got home and cry. (It didn't stop me, apparently, cause I'm still here--so even if you are a five stepper, you can keep going!) I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I could do everything I wanted to--without feeling that way. I just thought it was a normal part of my process.

Now, I admit I would be embarrassed if certain people I knew read that, but I want to include it because I believe there are people out there struggling with the same thing, and I want them to know it's possible for it to go away.

I'm not a therapist or a doctor. But as I kept forcing myself to persevere over and over again, something weird happened.

I accumulated experience.

Which meant I accumulated confidence.

At some point, I stopped internalizing failures without really realizing it, because I knew I could overcome the problem--because I did it over and over and over again. I could do hard things.

I'm not saying thoughts never cross my mind that could affect my self-esteem--they do, to everyone. No one is immune to passing thoughts. It's a natural thought process of failure. Of course I'm going to question things, because I'm disappointed and not figuring things out, and I'm trying to figure them out, troubleshoot, evaluate, why it's not working (is it me???). But because I have accumulated experience, it doesn't take root.


The Keys to Exceptional Success: Unparalleled Discernment and Precision



But even with all this, failure has a purpose that in some ways is far more important than anything we've talked about. And this is a process that I think most people don't adequately explain.

They may say things like, "You learn more from failure," but they don't clearly explain how or why; they just brush the surface.

For the last two years, I've been thinking a lot about discernment, and what it is, how we develop it, and why it's so important.

Guess what?

This relates directly to failure. In fact, accumulating failure can give you unparalleled discernment and precision, which is exactly why you will have the potential to become exceptionally successful.

In classrooms and in textbooks, we tend to talk in "black and white" terms. Either something is right, or something is wrong. You either solved that problem correctly, or you didn't. Sometimes this even goes into religion. You either kept that commandment, or you didn't.

But the real world is way more complicated than that. Some people want to believe it's still black and white, but it's not. I don't care how vehemently you preach that to me, reality and experience has taught me life is way more complicated and complex than that.

This is where life experience comes in. You've probably all heard the idea that you can study about a subject all day for years, but until you accumulate life experience, you won't be able to do whatever you are trying to do, as successfully. This is because the subject, like almost everything, has a whole entire spectrum of grays--not just black and white.

It would be impossible to teach and cover all those grays in a classroom, textbook, or sermon--the grays, in some ways, are infinite. And if we did try to teach all those grays and exceptions and such, not only would it take up waaaay more time, but it would muddy and take away from the main successful routes, the white over the black, the basics we are trying to teach.

But let's get deeper.

Gray isn't one color. It's a type of color.

So maybe you are introduced to black and white. But in the real world, you run into gray. And you don't know how to interpret or approach it. It doesn't fit in exactly with what you were taught.

Discern the gray


As you deal with that, you learn to discern that gray exists.

But guess what? Gray is a type of color.

So you go along in life, and then you run into a different gray. Now not only do you discern gray from black and white, but you need to learn to discern how this gray is different than the last. What kind of gray is it? To what degree is it black? To what degree it is white? Does it have other colors mixed in?

And as time goes on, you encounter another gray.



And another.



And another.




And eventually . . .



even if the shades are almost exactly the same . . .




you can discern almost imperceptible differences.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shades_of_gray


This is the same sort of process that happens when you accumulate failures (though obviously I'm using a metaphor to make it more accessible), as long as you persevere until you succeed in each one.

In other words, you develop a level of discernment that was totally inaccessible without those encounters, because you can't know them, until you accumulate the experience of them. And as you accumulate the experience of them, you more easily discern them. (I know I just talked in circles, but hopefully you get it).

You can identify steel gray from pewter gray.

But identifying is only half of it.

Because you persevered to success over and over again, you know how to handle the pewter gray when you see it again.

In other words, you develop an exceptional level of precision, that anyone who has given up repeatedly, can only dream of. (Seriously.)

As you encounter pewter gray and address it over



and over



and over



again



The path becomes clearer.

But if you never have the experience of having to learn how to discern and address it (in the point of this post, aka, fail and overcome it), you'll never fully know it, to the same extent, of that specificity.

As your exact discerning and understanding of the specific thing grows, so does your wisdom concerning it.

What is the difference between having general "knowledge" and having "wisdom"? It is discernment. General knowledge is just learned information. But wisdom has a level of discernment. And it doesn't stop there. Real wisdom is discerning how to apply knowledge the right way to the right situation. Wisdom comes from learning to recognize and reconcile opposites.

Okay, hold your horses there, because I just used the word "opposites." The truth is, I want to use a different word, but haven't found the right one that fits yet. When I say "opposite" I don't necessarily mean direct opposites (black vs. white), but some degree of opposition, some degree of difference, i.e. pewter gray vs. steel gray. It's recognizing that and knowing the precise way to address it.

Satan wasn't kidding when he told Eve that if she partook of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (opposites), she'd have the "wisdom of God." But people don't understand the significance of that idea, because they only think of direct opposites, the black and white, not all the grays that exist in between, (i.e. "Is it evil to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?"). I do not believe we are meant to go through life with our "color-blinders" on, only perceiving and labeling everything as black or white. We can never become something more until we discern the other shades.

What's weird is that until we can discern, we cannot accurately judge. Which adds a whole layer to the idea of not judging (in the "condemning" definition) others. The idea that we even have the level of discernment, the capacity to decide who goes to Heaven or Hell is laughable, because it implies we believe we have obtained the same capacity of discernment, of wisdom, as God. (ROFL!) But this is a tricky concept to talk about, because the word "judge" has multiple definitions. "Judge" can be used to mean something like "discern," but it's also used to mean something like "condemn" or like, "sentence." We should really only be concerned with the first one most the time (unless we are law enforcement or something). This is also why it's possible to "hate the sin, love the sinner," so to speak.

Anyway! (A slight tangent that I felt was worth mentioning.)

Repeated failure and accumulated experience (of persevering) literally enhances and broadens our capacity for discernment in ways that cannot be obtained otherwise, which means we can literally perceive things others cannot, which means, we can develop an exact level of precision that others cannot. Which means, we can actually get closer to a state of perfection, in whatever we are pursuing, that others cannot. Which means we have the potential to succeed in exceptional ways, usually way beyond that of those who don't fail.

Sure, there are naturally gifted people, who fail less, but they are rare. Most highly successful people are ordinary people who have failed a ton. And unless naturally gifted people work for it, they may never reach the same level of discernment and wisdom.

This is why you hear people say things about "experience." "I'm looking for someone with experience." What they are really saying is that they are looking for someone with discernment, with wisdom. But here's the funny thing. Just because someone has been around longer, doesn't necessarily mean they are more discerning, wise. Because if they never risk failure, choose to see the shades of gray, persevere to success, they may never develop the same level of discernment as someone much younger who does that all the time. Maybe this is why some young people "have old souls."

Since I became an adult, I've been amazed at how easily others will quit the simplest things.  Someone will ask me how I styled my hair a certain way, I'll tell them what to do, they fail, and they say things like, "I'm just not good at that. I tried it and it didn't work" (internalized failure). I try to explain I sucked at the hairstyle my first time too--in fact, maybe the first ten times. But here's the thing. They didn't see how bad my hair looked those ten days. They only saw the results.

I realize that not all of us want to succeed at everything badly. And in fact, it's unrealistic to put 100% effort into everything we choose to pursue. We may have different priorities, run into new interests, decide it's not what we thought it was, and move on. That is 100% okay.

On the other hand, part of me wonders, if that person quit at trying a hairstyle after their first attempt--what else is that behavior affecting in their lives? After all, most things you don't get right the first time! Then again, maybe they just decided they weren't that interested . . . which weirdly gets back to discernment--I don't have all the factors to judge for sure, and it's very important we learn to discern ourselves and our own motives, honestly.

Still, I think a lot of people probably give up too quickly, mainly because of my earlier point: failure isn't fun. It can hurt and even be humiliating. And the growing process of learning discernment and a new skill is difficult and uncomfortable (but so, so worth it). If you look at what I've outlined in this section, it's clearly a refining process.

As I've been working at solving the scenes I'm stuck on, it does feel like refinement in a lot of ways.

At first I set out with some ideas on how to fix the scenes.



But one way failed.



Then another.



Then another.



Then another.



And another.



But in the process of my attempts, I'm slowly stripping away what does not work, getting closer to the solution. And refining my discernment and precision, in ways I haven't before. So I'm gaining wisdom.

What's crazy . . .

. . . is the more you do this . . .

. . . the more exceptional you can become . . .

. . . and the more exceptional you can become . . .

. . . the more you can stand out . . .

. . . so you'll be unparalleled in your realm.

We all think competition is fierce--and it can be. (And there are always some elements out of our control.)

But imagine being so exceptional, that few people are even in your level, or in that category. In a sense, there is actually less competition where you stand. After all, frankly, most people will quit before they get to that level. Maybe it's because they internalize failure. Maybe it's because they don't slow down, identify, and overcome the problem, but instead just keep starting over and over and over again. Maybe it's because they choose not to see gray. Maybe it's because failing so many times invites feelings of frustration and disappointment (though weirdly, the more often you experience that point, the more clearly you can see how to deal with those feelings and that they will eventually pass). Or, maybe they decide they aren't that interested in it. It is a personal choice after all, and who am I to judge (condemn)? I'm still trying to learn to judged (discern), myself.

All I'm saying is that overcoming repeated failure is a refining process that enhances our discernment and precision in ways that are unparalleled. As long as you are learning (and applying what you learn), you are succeeding, to say the cliche. Or in other words, "You only fail if you quit" (I love playing with the ambiguity of English words). I've heard these cliches . . . but now I know them (or perhaps more appropriately, discern them).

Often those who have had exceptional success, the masters, have failed a million times, whether that is Edison or Mozart. In an article I recently read, someone called it the "10 Years of Silence," noticing that many music masters didn't have any exceptional success for ten years (where they were failing behind the scenes). It's precisely this refinement and perseverance that enabled them to become masters at all.

Now, everyone remembers them for their successes, not their failures.

***

I realize this is a post that is different than what I have been writing lately, but I feel that understanding the purpose of failure is critical to success, especially in writing, where we are literally working with black marks on a page. Learning to discern accurately is critical--it's why we have writing groups, writing conferences, teachers, and editors. 

I also realize it is a little rambly, but it's a pretty abstract topic, and when I thought of cutting out certain points, I thought that those points may resonate with a particular person. So you'll have to forgive me (this is just an informal blog post after all, and I wanted to get it up today). Hopefully, though, at least one thing in here was helpful to you!

Monday, October 7, 2019

Writing Callbacks




I finally found the correct term for a writing technique that has been in my head a few years! I was at a panel at FanX, when author Dan Willis (not to be confused with Dan Wells) started talking about "callbacks"--I wanted to stop him right then and there and thank him for finally giving me the word (but since we were on a panel, I didn't think that would be a good idea!).

Of course, it comes from the screenwriting world 🙄 Seriously guys, I've never had much of a desire to get into screenwriting, but there are some great ideas (and terminology) in that branch of creative writing (particularly with story structures). So if you want more resources for writing good stories, look into some screenwriting books.

Anyway!

Naturally, I want to now talk about callbacks, since I have the official term (maybe I'm late to the game, and you guys already knew the correct term 😅) But, I'm also going to expand the idea, afterwards.

Callbacks Explained

By definition, a callback is a dialogue technique. It's when you bring back an old line from earlier in the story.

The Order of the Phoenix film has one of my favorite callbacks in it.

After Harry gets detention, he has to write lines with Umbridge that say "I must not tell lies."

Later in the film, this happens:



That is a callback.

And audiences love it.

Often callbacks are used in comedy, where the punchline of a joke is pulled back in later for another laugh.

Callbacks can happen in a lot of different places and have a lot of different tones.

However, most of the time, to be effective, the callback must be different than the original line in some way.

This often means changing the context and/or the line itself (by my definition).

So in the Order of the Phoenix example, the line stays the exact same: "I must not tell lies." But the context is radically different. Originally, Umbridge had the upper hand and was torturing Harry. In the callback, Harry has control. Because we all hate Umbridge and what she did to him so much, it's really satisfying when he calmly throws it in her face.

But the context can change in a bunch of other different ways too. In Galaxy Quest, Alexander loathes delivering the line "By Grabthar's hammer . . ." throughout the film, which is comedic to the audience, but near the climax, the line is flipped on its head when he uses it to comfort a man dying in his arms.

Sometimes you can use the line to illustrate an arc. At the beginning of the story it meant one thing, but by the end, it has a new, more significant meaning. This can be great to emphasize character growth and thematic statements. Mockingjay (the book) does this well in all its references to the "Hanging Tree" lyrics.

Some stories tweak the line. Pirates of the Caribbean uses this comedically throughout the series, when characters make references to the rum being gone.



In Spider-verse, the writers played around with Spider-man's tag line: with great power, comes great responsibility, and flipped it around so that we have Miles's dad saying incorrectly "With great ability, comes great accountability" or even having Spider-man himself imply how sick he is of hearing the line. (This is a smart move on the writers' part, since they are working with a story that has been rebooted four times in 16 years ðŸĪŠ Like Peter, we may be tired of the tagline ourselves.)

Often people's favorite lines to quote are callbacks. Have you noticed?



When writing callbacks, the most important thing to remember is to not be annoying.

If you overuse this technique, it can become annoying.

If you overuse a line in the same context over and over again, it can be annoying.

It's like telling the same joke over and over and expecting it to be just as effective. It's not. It gets irritating.

(Unless the joke is that you tell it over and over again.)

You could say the Inigo Montoya's line is overdone, but it's intentional and part of the point.

Physical Callbacks

By definition, "callback" relates to dialogue, but I say, why stop there? Why can't objects or actions work as callbacks too? Well, they can, and actually, they do.

Let's go back to Spider-verse. The climax is loaded with all sorts of callbacks. But perhaps the most memorable is when Miles defeats Kingpin with the "shoulder touch" he learned earlier in the story. Sure, it does have the same dialogue from earlier ("Heeeeey!"), but really, it's the action that's the focal point. That's the real callback.



What about in Lord of the Rings, when we get that shot of Frodo stroking the ring in the exact same way as Smeagol? Isn't that an action that conveys a significant arc of character? And it's an action we've seen before.

What about Seamus Finnigan's magic constantly blowing up in flames through the Harry Potter series--isn't that like a callback? Finally in the last movie, he's asked to blow something up intentionally.

And then let's not forget Napoleon Dynamite and his dancing.

And why can't this be objects too? Like the changing context of a Mockingjay pin? Or Dobby and his love of socks?

Sure, these all might be a little trickier to pull off in a novel, but not impossible. For actions, just make sure to use the same or similar descriptions and keywords, so you reinforce and emphasize an association. Objects might be a little easier, and they may even take on symbolism, but you make sure they stand out.

I could go on and talk about how callbacks can even extend beyond the text to other texts. Like how Spider-verse calls back to the original Spider-man trilogy a lot in the opening (like with Peter's dance moves). But I think I'll call it good for today.

In the end, remember this: Callbacks are effective because they resonate with what the audience saw before.


Monday, September 30, 2019

When to "Tell" Emotions




Over the years, I've written a lot of posts about emotions, how to get them on the page, how to get them in the reader, how strong they should be and when, and so on. Writing an emotionally powerful story is super important, but honestly, other than Angela and Becca at Writers Helping Writers, I don't see a ton of solid advice on how to actually infuse your story with it.

In the past, I've talked about how one of the most important things is to create an empathetic experience in the reader, so they feel like they are experiencing those emotions instead of just reading about them. This is equivalent to the "Show, don't Tell" rule, even if "showing" emotions, is often less about describing them, and more about describing what causes them and/or getting into the deepest POV penetration available.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that usually if you want to have your audience have a very powerful emotional experience, you write in a way that allows them to vicariously feel those emotions, rather than just "telling" the audience what emotions were felt (i.e. Patricia was sad).

However, like the traditional "Show, don't Tell" rule, if you never "tell" the audience what emotions characters are feeling, you run into some problems. So today, I want to talk about when you should absolutely consider simply telling the audience your characters' emotions, or at least simply demonstrating them in a short amount of space.

1. It's Important for the Audience to Know the Emotion, but Not Necessarily to Experience it.


Sure, for a powerful story, we want our audience to experience the same emotions as our protagonist (usually). If a character is devastated, we want our audience to feel devastated.

But sometimes the point isn't to experience the emotion. Sometimes the point is just to know about it.

I've used this example elsewhere, but in The Hunger Games, after Katniss shoots the apple out of the pig's mouth, Collins writes something like, "I cried about it all afternoon." In that instance, it's not important that the audience feels like crying. It's just helpful to know that Katniss did.

Not all of the protagonist's emotions will be important enough to experience. Some of them are just important to know.

2. Pacing


If Collins had instead tried to write a whole passage to elicit those feelings in the audience, it would have taken up a lot more space, and therefore would have slowed the story's overall pacing. Sometimes pacing is more important than feelings (especially if you are going so slow that the audience doesn't feel the intended feelings anyway because they are yawning).

With that said though, depending on the setup of the scene, you can sometimes elicit emotion in very few words. Other times? Well, it might be best to just say "I cried about it all afternoon."

3. Emotional Context


Context is the stuff that helps us accurately interpret and understand what's going on in the story. Usually, the viewpoint character provides the audience with needed context.

In some passages, the audience needs emotional context to properly interpret the narrative. This may be especially true of speculative fiction, where the audience may be encountering other worlds, cultures, and customs. For example, when Harry sees someone walk out of a picture frame for the first time in the Wizarding World, he looks to Ron in surprise. Ron says, unconcerned, "Well, you can't expect him to hang around all day." Ron's nonchalance clues us into the fact that this is normal for the Wizarding World (while Harry's surprise validates our own).

In similar ways, your viewpoint character's emotions may provide context for how readers are supposed to view the world and certain situations. A lot of times, the best way to get this across, is to just tell us straight out what the character is feeling, rather than try to get the audience to feel that way (which would be extremely difficult if the subject matter was otherworldly).

4. Emotional Validation


In the last example, I mentioned that Harry's surprise validates our own. If Harry wasn't surprised, we'd probably think he was odd, or maybe that there is something wrong with us for having that response.

Sometimes you need to simply address and tell emotions in order to validate the audience's. If something really terrifying happens, and the viewpoint character or protagonist doesn't show any sign of emotion, we might be left scratching our heads. Were they terrified? Is there something wrong with them? Did we misunderstand how that passage should be read?

Validation and context often interrelate. You can learn more about validating the audience here.

5. Hooks


Sometimes the best hooks address emotions directly. Something like, "When William went to sleep last night, he hadn't expected to wake up in terror," can have readers drooling to read on. Or perhaps, "As Emily stared into Jack's eyes, she thought this must be what it felt like to fall in love with a villain." Or maybe, "Clark walked into his mother's motor home and was shocked." Whatever the case, labeling an emotion can be a great hook.

6. To Cut Back Overpowering Emotions


In some cases, you might elicit emotions so powerfully, that it's simply too much. It's possible to write too strong of a scene. In situations like that, simply telling an emotion can weaken it enough to make it digestible for the audience.

So there you have it, six instances where you don't necessarily want the audience to feel empathetic emotions.

Monday, September 23, 2019

7 Tricks to Refresh a Scene You've Edited 68345.27 Times ðŸĪŠ



You know how when you go to Japanese restaurants, they always give you ginger to help clear your palate? I wish something like that existed for when you are editing something you've already edited 50 times.

It would make the life of a writer so much easier.

Luckily, there are a few tricks that can help fool your mind, at least to some degree.

1. Take a Break


Probably the most obvious and most common advice is to step way from the scene, or project, long enough for your eyes to go "cold," as they say. In some cases, it may be helpful to take a break from all forms of creative writing. For some, two days may be enough. Others might need a month, or longer.

While that is probably the most helpful approach, it's not always realistic. It's time consuming (obviously), and if you are on a deadline, it might not be an option. So let's talk about some other ways.


2. Change the Font

If you change the font of what you are editing, it can sometimes fool your mind enough into thinking the scene or project is "fresher." It's not as effective as taking a break, but it can still be pretty darn effective.


3. Change Position or Setting

Similarly, if you tend to write in the same area(s), try going to a place you usually don't write. Can you go outside? In a fancy room? In a closet? To a cafe?

Or maybe it would be helpful to change your position. Instead of sitting up, try lounging in bed, or perhaps standing.


4. Print off on Paper

I've often found that printing off an overworked scene can help give me a fresh perspective. I might edit the writing right on the page.


5. Read Aloud


Reading aloud actually uses a different part of the brain than reading silently. This is why some kids are great at reading on their own, but struggle to read when called on in class.

As a bonus, reading aloud can also help you find typos, awkward phrases, or poor dialogue.


6. Read Aloud to Someone Else


From my experience, reading aloud to someone else can sometimes double that effect.


7. Trust the Process

In a show I like to watch sometimes called "The Profit," businessman Marcus Lemonis goes in to failing businesses and helps them succeed. On occasion, he tells people to "trust the process."  Meaning, rather than trying to trust him, other people, or maybe even themselves, they should trust the process of becoming a better business.

A few months ago, an ad came up on my Facebook, where best-selling author Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) said something similar. He said there will be days when you feel like you can't write, days where it feels impossible and you don't have it in you. That, he said, is when you trust the process.

You trust the process of writing a story, scene, or whatever, regardless of how you feel.

If you've been writing long enough, you should be somewhat familiar with the process, or even, your own personal process.

So maybe you feel like your brain is going to fall out if you have to edit this scene one more time--trust the process. Trust the technique and steps needed to write a good one, and follow it through.

(Maybe the last one isn't technically a "refresh," but it can be, and it can be helpful.)



Monday, September 16, 2019

Mastering Midpoints (The Saviors of Saggy Story Middles)



I've been pulling my hair out lately trying to fix the middle part of one of my novels, and one of the main problems with it, relates to the midpoint. You see, I plotted and largely wrote this manuscript years ago, before I had an in-depth understanding of story structure--like a lot of us have probably done. Heck, a lot of us don't even like thinking about story structure because it feels too restrictive and formulaic, and that's fine. But whether you plot your stories' structures by the books or just do what you want as you go, understanding story structure can be hecka important. And even if you hate it, at least knowing how it functions can be super useful, especially if you are trying to troubleshoot what is wrong with a manuscript, like I was weeks (months?) ago.

Once I realized that my problem related to the midpoint, I was able to begin brainstorming (and praying) how I might fix it. And a lot of times, the midpoint is key in doctoring a problematic middle. I kind of like to think of it as the savior.

The midpoint typically happens in the middle of the plot (no surprise there). It is the moment when new, significant information--or at least a shift in context--enters and turns the story in a different direction.

(Wow, is that definition vague enough?)

Now, the direction of the story can change completely, like a 180, or it may be very slight and subtle, more like 10 degrees, but it changes in a significant way.

Most often, in a typical story structure, the change is this:

The protagonist moves from being primarily responsive to being more (pro)active, in regards to the main plot.

So, it's usually like:

Character responding to problems --> Midpoint (new information or context) --> Character being proactive toward main problems.

The "new information" is just something that allows the character (or audience) to have a greater understanding of what's going on, so that they can now be more active in attacking the problem.

There are literally so many ways this can play out, which is why the midpoint can seem difficult to grasp, so I'm going to grab some popular examples:


In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the midpoint happens when Harry overhears the professors in the Three Broomsticks and learns Sirius Black is the reason his parents are dead.

Why? Because prior to this, he is responding or reacting to the fact Sirius is after him. But after this, he wants to seek revenge on Sirius, in other words, mentally, he becomes active in "attack mode."

In Legally Blonde, the midpoint happens when Elle realizes that she will never be good enough for Warner.

Why? Because prior to this, she is just responding to Warner's breakup. But after this she is actively trying to succeed at Harvard, with an intensity she hasn't had prior--she buys all new materials, studies hard, answers questions in classes.

In Interstellar, the midpoint happens when Cooper, Murph, and by extension, the audience, realize that there is no real "Plan A"--everyone on Earth is going to die.

Why? Because prior to this, Cooper is responding to the destiny of humankind, but after this, he goes into an active "attack mode" by planning to do whatever it takes to return to Murph and Earth right away.

In Ralph Breaks the Internet, the midpoint is when Ralph realizes he can get the money they need from making viral videos.

Why? Because prior to this, he is unsuccessfully responding to the broken steering situation and the internet itself, and after this, he hatches a solid plan to get the cash, with a better understanding of how the internet works.


But a midpoint can be rather loose, which is why it's hard to define and wrap our minds around. For example, I may use terms like "respond" and "reaction" paired with "attack" and "pro-action," but you could argue from another perspective, some protagonists are doing all of them all the time. For example, from the inciting incident, Ralph is trying to actively solve a problem, and same goes for Cooper. But here's the thing. At the midpoint, new information or a new understanding allows them to "attack," better or more accurately, the focal conflict.

Think of it as a moment that jump-starts the protagonist into a different direction.

In some cases, this may be a rather unexpected direction. 

In Lion King, Simba spends the first part of the story reacting to the fact he will someday be king, but then the midpoint hits--Mufasa dies and Scar tells Simba no one will ever love or forgive him--Simba goes into an "attack" mode of sorts, except his is that rather than just responding to being king someday, he proactively chooses to never be king, and takes action by running away and starting a new life. It relates to the main conflict of the story, but his "attack mode" is to actively, intentionally, run away. After all, he thinks he is the problem, so in a sense, he is "attacking" himself.


The content of a midpoint can be very flexible, as you can see from these examples. If you want to get a better discerning eye for what a midpoint is and how many different forms it can take, start pausing movies smack dab in the middle--there should be something around there that enters the story and pushes it in a new direction. You can also try opening books to the middle and searching around there. Harry discovering Sirius is responsible for his parents' deaths is near the middle. In Stranger Things season one, Will's body is found smack dab in the middle, which is new information that changes context, and therefore the direction of the story. And after that point, the characters have to all decide how to act next.

So now that we have some idea of what a midpoint is (significant information that changes the direction of the story, usually by changing the protagonist), let's talk about how it actually works.

Step One: New Significant Information Enters . . .


In order for a story or protagonist to start going a new direction, there has to be something that causes that. Information. Or an event that is new information.

Or at least a shift in our understanding of the information we already have (context shift), which in a sense, is its own kind of "new" information.

But let's not confuse ourselves quite yet.

In order for the information to significantly change the direction of the story, the information itself needs to be significant.

Remember how I broke down what constitutes "significant" a few weeks ago?

Something is significant when it either:

1) Has important personal consequences, or
2) Has far-reaching, broad consequences
So, new information enters the story that has personal or far-reaching consequences. This means that the midpoint itself is either going to "broaden" or "deepen" the story, or do both. And it's going to do this in a powerful way.

Elle realizing that she will never be good enough for Warner has deep (a.k.a. personal) consequences. Harry realizing that Sirius is responsible for his parents' death has deep consequences.

Cooper learning everyone on Earth is going to die has broad consequences--all of humankind.

Simba believing he killed his father has both personal and broad consequences, as it affects himself and his whole kingdom.

Sometimes the new information is big and mind-blowing, maybe even a juicy twist, like in Incredibles 2 when Elastigirl realizes that Evelyn is the real Screenslaver, and she's in deep trouble. Or it can be subtle, like a character making an important connection between information he already had.

Like I touched on earlier. The new information can come as:


Information

- Ralph learning he can make money by making viral videos is straight up information.

- Harry learning Sirius is responsible for his parents' deaths is straight up information.

An Event

- Scar killing Mufasa and telling Simba it's his fault is an event. Mufasa being dead and Simba believing he is responsible is the "new information" (along with the fact Scar actually killed Mufasa).

- In Stranger Things season one, Will's body being recovered is an event that brings in new information. The characters either have to accept he's actually dead or prove to others he is not.

Or a Context Shift

- Dr. Brand reciting a poem he's recited through the whole movie isn't really anything new. But him reciting it on his death bed in that tone shifts the context and gives it a whole new meaning, which leads to characters' new realizations.


Whatever the case, something significant arrives in the middle that changes how the story has been going. And this something needs to have greater potential consequences than probably anything that has happened since the inciting incident.


Step Two: . . . Which Leads to a New Direction or Understanding


Now that new, significant information has entered the story, it means the protagonist or the audience (or both) will change their approach to the problems, because their understanding has changed.

In some stories, the change may be aggressive. For example, in Incredibles 2, I would consider the results of the midpoint to be more aggressive and drastic. Elasticgirl falls under Evelyn's control, and later, so do other superheroes. The midpoint means that this problem is going to be much more difficult to solve than we first thought. (Note though, how all the of protagonists (the family) change more drastically after that moment.)

In other stories, the change may be softer. Sure, Harry now wants revenge on Sirius, but content-speaking, this doesn't drastically change what happens in the plot, until the climax, when he meets Sirius. The midpoint is still critical, for Harry, and for our understanding of the story, but Harry's "attack" mode is not super aggressive. The midpoint largely changes the story's context. We all now see everything with Sirius in a different light, and we also now have more things to worry about.

In either method, the midpoint kicks up the tension, like a catalyst.



Variations

Like everything in writing, you can break rules and play with variations. Once you understand what a basic midpoint is, you can mess around with it, to an extent.

Often a midpoint is, well, a point, a moment, an instant, or a single scene. But sometimes, like plot points, it might be more of a sequences of scenes. It might be a sequence of information. For example, in Into the Spider-verse, the midpoint is when the heroes successfully get the computer from Alchemax and realize where they can get another goober. Prior to this, Miles and Peter are largely responding and reacting to their situations. During the course of the Alchemax scene, they learn to work together, and Miles learns to use his abilities. They also learn some new information about Kingpin, Doc Oc, and the collider. But in the next scene, it's Gwen who says she knows how to fix their problems. There isn't really a strong, critical, earth-moving moment, but rather a sequence of new things that bring them into "attack mode."

At some midpoints, the protagonist doesn't learn new information, but only the audience does. The protagonist can still get more desperate in solving the problems, but it's the audience alone that has the greater context. Because it still changes the direction--our understanding--of the story, has significant consequences, and kicks up tension, it can still work as a midpoint, if an unusual one.

On the flip side, it may be that the midpoint brings in information that is new to the protagonist, but that the audience already knew or surmised earlier, but the fact the protagonist now knows changes the direction and meaning of the story in significant ways, jump-starting the next part of the plot.

Some stories may place the midpoint a little earlier or a little later than the middle, and if that doesn't mess up the pacing or make the stakes drag, why not?

Some stories may even have multiple midpoints. In Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, he talks about this in regards to The Da Vinci Code. One moment is when Langdon and Sophie decide to meet Professor Teabing, who is "The Teacher," and another moment is when they learn what the Holy Grail actually is. Each moment changes the direction and meaning of the story.


In particular, you may have multiple midpoints when you have multiple plot lines. For example, in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry learning that information about Sirius is a midpoint, but a lot of the other plot lines hit a midpoint near there as well. Harry hasn't been able to get to Hogsmeade, but in that same chapter, Fred and George give him the Marauader's Map--new information that drastically changes his ability to travel. There is also a plot line about winning the Quidditch cup, and near the middle, Harry's broom gets busted and someone sends him a Fireblot, drastically changing things.

For the werewolf/Lupin plot line, near the middle, Snape substitutes D.A.D.A. and teaches about werewolves, particularly how to recognize one. With the Hagrid and Buckbeak plot line, in the middle, the trio learns that Buckbeak has to go to trial, and they promise to help with it. With the Dementor plot line, around the middle, Harry falls off his broom and then Lupin offers to teach Harry the Patronus charm.

In short, every plot line hits something new and significant that changes the direction of it. It is almost always something greater than anything that has happened since that plot line's inciting incident.


If you find your story middle isn't coming together, check the midpoint(s). Think of the midpoint as the nail you hang your story's whole middle on. It transitions from the first half of the middle to the second half of the middle. It's the story's middle middle. 


Related Posts:
Story Structure Explained: Pinch Points, Midpoints, Plot Points, and Middles
How to Write Stakes in Storytelling
What to Outline When Starting a Story