Over at the Digital Webbing forums, user Confundus started a discussion titled  "Why do you create?"  My inner smart ass begged me to post something fun. 

"There’s a lot less jail time involved than other things I could do with my spare time."

"A radioactive writer bit me as a kid."

"Legos.  Legos made me do it."

But I wanted to address the subject (semi)seriously.  Like a number of theories about psychological damage/trauma/twinkies suggest, it all began with my childhood.  A time of innocence and child-like wonder… for most of us who weren’t deathly shy and imbued with an overabundance of social awkwardness.  To compensate, I dove into reading books.  I treated books like most of the kids treat their iPods and headphones–as an excuse not to talk to anyone.

So, I read and read and read.  And my mom kept buying me books because 1) she was a big fan of reading and 2) it kept me from tearing appliances apart to figure out how they work.  It was win-win for her.  And I kept up this reading frenzy until an accident sent me over the edge and turned a consumer of stories into a creator.

That accident?  I left behind my books when I went away to camp for two weeks.  I meant to pack them but my thoughts were distant and distracted as I worried about this social environment my mom wanted to subject me to.  Maybe I could fake a major illness?  No good… my mom worked at the hospital.  Tamper with her car?  Still no good… she had my grandpa as a backup and if I messed with his car, I’d suffer a fate worse than camp.

No escape.

So, I went to camp and found myself surrounded by all these kids who wanted to talk and scream and play and establish some sort of alpha male dominance by sniffing each other’s farts.  And reached for my books only to find I had no protection from them at all.  I was the starship Enterprise entering battle without shields.  I was the Millenium Falcon without its hyperdrive.  And this forced me to face my fears and neuroses head on…

By hiding a lot.  I was adept at it.  So good in fact, it actually led to my "Ninja" nickname in my military days.  But the social tsunami of camp caught up to me at the classic ritual of bonding, the campfire.  When the campfire tales began, I felt at ease.  They weren’t books but they were stories.  I watched the storytellers as the tales unfolded and watched the campers.  Studied their reactions–how they could hang on every word for some stories and laugh throughout others.  How the campers suspended disbelief in certain situations and called ‘phony baloney’ when the story reached too far (or too fast).

The next day, I scrounged up paper and pencil and began crafting my own campfire tales.  I didn’t even bother to hide because the very idea of storytelling swept me away into the depths of my imagination.  An experience far more wondrous to me than getting lost in a good book.  I could pretend to be elsewhere… I could walk in other people’s shoes… I could make anything happen.  Words fell onto the page like a waterfall.  The experience was all-consuming and very surreal.

Then came the night when I’d take my turn telling a tale.  A tale about campers whose shadows disappeared overnight and something tragic would happen to them during the day.  Until a  few campers were left to face off against the source of the problem–a creature in the forest stealing the shadows.  Through trial and hardship, they managed to trap the beast…  only to find out he was only stealing the shadows to hide himself.  They soon learned he wasn’t the one causing the tragedies in the camp.  He was prey just like all of them… and the hunter was right behind them.  The end.

The story was a clumsy first attempt as fear and sweat poured out of me during the telling of it, but once I got into the flow of the tale, I had fun.  And it was amazing to see my peers reacting to the story.  I even saw a couple kids checking to make sure their shadows were still there.  I noticed the joy some kids felt when they realized a character was based off them and they were part of the story.  And the rising suspense and fear… I could sense it alive and well in the ebb and flow of the audience.

I gave them a new tale every night and I discovered something about the entire process…

It’s addictive.

And that’s why I create–why I’ve built stories ever since that experience at camp.  Yes, I really enjoy entertaining people and I love making people laugh, but I spent decades writing hundreds of stories no one has ever read (and I still write stories I never plan on publishing).  So, I have to be honest to myself.  That rush I get from creating stories–it whispers to me when I don’t get enough of it.  I think I even get the shakes when I don’t have an outlet for my storytelling for an extended period of time. 

I’m a storytelling junkie, and I will be one for the rest of my days whether I make my living at it or not.

I suppose I should mention where the ideas in my random encounter chart come from originally before they’re twisted and deformed into future ideas.  I mean… refined.  Yeah, refined like a chilled, vintage Boone’s Strawberry Hill.

The thing is… ideas come from everywhere.  Let me spell that out for the people resisting the notion.  E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E.  Ideas can ignite from anything you hear, see, smell, touch, taste or exfoliate.  Take a look at a few samples of idea harvesting:

  • "Oh, look… I overheard a conversation between some people and their discussion bubbled with awesomesoap."  Uh-oh, Jeff’s eavesdropping again.  No stalking!  Bad Jeff!  Seriously though, imagine sitting someplace busy where dozens and dozens of widely varying conversations flitter about within earshot.  Your attentions gets pulled here-and-there and through it all, you might hear a jumble of words: "Pizza giganticus… his girlfriend’s girlfriend punched him out… backpacking across Greenland…"  Write all that down and let it percolate a touch.  There’s probably some idea forming right now (even if it’s an off-the-wall one).  When people converse in public, they exhibit this passion for exaggeration and not caring who hears them.  Don’t let their efforts be in vain!
  • "People!  Public!  Personal space persecution!  Aaarrrgh!"  For those of you exhibiting signs of social anxiety/awkwardness/apprehension, don’t worry.  A slightly less effective means exists for listening in on conversations… the Internet.  Twitter, message boards and chat rooms all provide eavesdropping opportunity but don’t expect it to be the same raw, unfiltered conversation you’d pick up out in the wild where humans dwell en masse.  Most of it gets edited for public consumption.  Just be sure to go where people talk about interesting things or follow people on Twitter discussing a wide variety of subjects.  With enough variety, your Twitter feed evolves into a stream of human-like consciousness and ideas.
  • "OMGageddon!  In one day, science made the universe its bitch with some new quantum discovery AND spent years of research figuring out which part of the brain controls the uber-dangerous ‘puppy dog look’."  I swear these science websites and magazines kick out story potential material all the time.  I call ’em virtual assembly lines of potential.  I sometimes use a swear word or four in there for emphasis. 
  • Oh, I hear you whiners out there, "But my story has nothing to do with science."  That doesn’t mean science can’t influence your story.  Science is more than math and physics and chemistry.  There’s psychology.  Struggling with a great villain?  That’s the science to keep an eye on.  There’s anthropology.  Need a well-developed world for your epic fantasy?  That’s the science to turn to.  Don’t expect a flood of ideas if you’re constantly damming off idea waterways whenever you don’t think they suit you or your writing.  "Oh, why doesn’t anyone like my fantasy genre story?  I’ve read everything related to fantasy and swords & sorcery.  Why, oh why?  Woe is me?"  Be brave… take a step away from some of the genre inbreeding and don’t be afraid to let ideas jump in from outside the norm of the genre.  Magic based on quantum theory?  Alien parasites turning people into  fantasy uber-champions?  Radiation forcing the evolution of animals in a human colony ship leading to a new race of primitive humanoids stepping onto a life-supporting plant after landing?
  • "Honey, guess what?  A group of people survived a blizzard by holing up in a freezer where it was warmer.  I’m so glad we live in Texas."  Ah, the joy of crazy news stories.  Whether heartwarming or horrifying, they provide such wonderful compost for my backyard idea garden.  Even if I don’t immediately "feel" a story has the potential for an idea, all I need is for it to generate some reaction in me to put it onto the list.  Any reaction… any emotion… any stray thought… if it gets me thinking or feeling anything, then it can be used to spark my imagination.  Sure, you might want to throw that little fish back… but you can always use it to catch a bigger fish.

See how all that works?  Now, repeat the mantra with me.  "Ideas come from everywhere."  Again… with feeling this time.  Better yet, write it down a hundred times to let it sink in.

Over at the Webcomics.com private forums, a discussion came up about talking in panels at conventions, and Brad Guigar (of the fun webcomic Evil, Inc) mentioned the following:

If someone asks, "Where do you get your ideas from," it’s a serious question. Don’t be That Guy again.

I’ve been that guy… kinda.  It was a (mostly) serious response, but everyone took it as if I was joking.  Here’s what happened…

Cornered by a wild pack (3 counts as a pack, right?) of Writerus Aspiringien, I willingly subjected myself to their onslaught of inquiries so I might pass down lessons learned on the ways of the hunt (and not feel as guilty if they get ravaged after venturing back out into the Wastelands of the Script).

My answers appealed to their ravenous appetites for all things writerly until one fated question hit me, "Where do you get your ideas?"

"I have a homemade D&D-style random encounter chart I roll on."

From that moment on, they scurried about the subject of writing and headed back out on the hunt.  Perhaps, I wounded them with that answer.  Maybe I revealed too much… too soon.


More-or-less, that’s how it happened.  Details may vary but you get the point.  They didn’t like my answer and the worst part of it all… it was true. 

When I get thoughts or ideas I think could be interesting in or as a story, I jot them down.  I used to read through these ideas from time-to-time to keep them fresh in my mind, but it reached overload capacity within a few years.  So, I decided to put together something simple where I could organize and randomly "roll up" an idea. 

I went to a familiar friend I grew up with–a staple of roleplaying games, the random encounter chart.

If I had an idea I thought needed some extra spice, I rolled on my idea chart to see what sent a spark through the ol’ brain meats.  If I wanted to pull together something new, I’d roll a few times on the charts and the very act of trying to piece together disparate ideas into a fluid, feasible storyline would generate tons of new ideas.  In fact, the number of ideas grew even faster after I created the chart.

I also experienced a side effect to this process… I started believing I could put together a feasible story with any jumble of ideas.  Eventually, I got to the point where I knew I could make a story out of anything anyone could throw at me. 

In just trying to keep up with my ideas, I learned a valuable skill for any writer… but it’s tough sharing this with anyone in person or talking on panels because I still wind up being "that guy".

I decided to keep going with the #watchmen2pitch challenge.  And by keep going, I mean I was asked if I could do it again today.  This time I went with the notion of a prequel to the Watchmen movie (thus the deviations from the Watchmen comic canon/continuity for the sole purpose of additional movie drama).  Here it is… and I decided to include some notes afterwards on my thought process for developing this pitch:

In 1977 as masked villains grew in numbers and costumed crimefighters sprang up to fight them, politicians debated the Keene Act, which would make masks illegal.  The sheer number of villains kept this political measure at bay, but one tragic night acted as a catalyst turning the Keene Act into a cause worth fighting for.  On that night, a large force of New York City policemen stormed a building in a raid to take down an illegal gambling operation.  None of them survived. 

The Watchmen stole their way onto the crime scene to investigate the slaughter and stumbled onto a single clue–a discarded betting slip… betting against them in a crime that took place the day before.  As they dig deeper, they discover a dark underworld where masked villains rise up to take on the crimefighters like sports stars seeking glory and riches.  Just like the proliferation of betting in sports during the 70s, odds are taken against planned crimes by these masked figures.  Betting for or against their success.  Betting on escape, capture or death.  Betting on who will be there to stop them.

As details leak to the press about this secret organization, Ozymandias shocks the Watchmen and the world by revealing his true identity as Adrian Veidt and stepping away from crimefighting because he could no longer in good conscience protect the people if his presence alone helped bring about these villainous acts.  Following his announcement and the news of the source of all these new masked villains, the NYC police stage a strike plunging the city into chaos with the people rioting against the masks further hindering the investigation.  The military moves in to aid with the riots but with open orders to capture or kill any mask they encounter.

With the world against them and with Dr. Manhattan pulled away to deal with matters of national concern, the remaining Watchmen still succeed in tracking down the nest of masked villains.  With the odds against them, the crimefighters battle this horde of villains and the criminal mastermind behind the operation, the Underboss.  The Watchmen struggle on and find a way to win.  They capture the Underboss… just as the Keene Act passes.  Their reward for ending this menace is the disbanding of the team under the heel of this "retire or be arrested" policy.

In the end, a mysterious figure in shadows (Veidt) works on the model of a familiar Antarctic Pyramid as minions drag the handcuffed Underboss before him.  The mystery  man congratulates the Underboss on a job well done and poisons the criminal and the minions to leave no trace of a connection to the gambling operation and the push for the Keene Act–the first steps toward a utopian world.

So, here’s how my brain pulled this out of the air.  I wanted to do a prequel, and in the comic, there was one major event noted in the story.  The Keene Act (which made masked vigilantism illegal).  I thought about how that would fit with the movie and I remembered Veidt made a tidy sum off of copyrighting masked characters likenesses just before the Keene Act (where they couldn’t fight him legally for the rights without going to jail).  Curious… what if the smartest man in the world was somehow responsible for getting the Keene Act?

I then started working up ideas about how he could orchestrate such a thing, so I started thinking about other big events in the 70s when I remembered that was the era when sports gambling took off because more sporting events were getting televised in the 70s.  Hmm… Veidt needs a lot of money for his scheme… and needs to turn public favor against masked crimefighters… what if gambling was at the core of it all?

What if these masked villains showed up merely to stake their claim in professional crime?  Youngsters with potential could get sponsored by more established criminals and trained to take on jobs and heroes for the sole purpose of betting on them as additional income.  Win-win… play your cards right and you can get the money from the heist or hedge your bets and earn a tidy profit even if they fail.

And then if the public ever found out that these masked villains the heroes always save them from are only showing up because there are crimefighters to make profit off of, it could be enough to turn them against the heroes and set off a police strike… and riots… and forcing the politicians hands to pass the Keene Act.  Besides, it’s much harder to establish a utopia if there are large numbers of heroes and villains running around thinking they’re above the law.

Some other notes: 

Yes, I know Veidt (by canon) revealed his identity about 2 years before the Keene Act passed.  But where’s the drama in that? 

And even though I have the Keene Act being debated here, I believe it was rushed through as an emergency act in response to something.  I don’t think there was a specific even established to trigger this, so I thought it would be nice to have one.

Out there in the Twitterverse, @cracksh0t threw down the gauntlet by telling everyone to post a Watchmen 2 pitch and squash the rumors of a sequel/prequel by flooding the Interwebs with ideas for it (under the #watchmen2pitch hashtag).  I decided to answer the challenge and this is what I posted out there… except it was in 140 character chunks and a bit more unwieldy to read.

After Veidt opens Jon’s eyes to the humanity still inside him, that humanity steals a foothold within Jon’s subconscious.  It sets forth to bring Jon back to the world of man by subtly reversing the changes that made him a god amongst men.  As Jon makes one of his regular visits to Earth to keep humanity united under the de facto rule of Veidt the world’s military forces strike and for the first time, Jon realizes his power is weakening.

Hurt and unable to escape Earth now, he sends a summons to his former allies–Silk Spectre, Nite Owl and a man watching the event from a mental hospital dayroom. A delusional man with suppressed memories who appeared on the doorstep of the hospital the same moment Rorschach died.  Jon’s summons drops a familiar mask into this man’s hands thus releasing Rorschach’s memories to set him loose upon the world once more.  The team reunites at Jon’s location just as Veidt takes off with Jon as his prisoner to learn how to make Jon’s power his.

The Watchmen search and fight against a world controlled mostly by Veidt Enterprises in order to save Jon but in the end, through the machinations of Rorschach, Jon sacrifices himself to reveal the truth about Veidt and allow a subjugated world the chance to reclaim their freedom once more.

Let’s see how much fun I can have this week with these pitches.

"I am going to get started on this screenplay as soon as I finish reading these books on screenwriting."

"I am going to get started on this screenplay as soon as I finish this class on screenwriting/writing/creative basket destruction."

"I am going to get started on this screenplay as soon as I finish reading all these websites on how to sell my screenplay."

"I am going to get started on this screenplay as soon as I finish researching every aspect of it to death."

"I am going to…"

Many people wind up stuck in the "I am going to…" phase when they first get started with some new endeavor.  And even though screenwriting showed up as my example, it’s not limited to there… it affects things like novel writing, comic creation, game development, website building, backup and recovery planning or monster ranching.  Sure, you need to learn things, develop skills and research items, but after learning the basics, shift out of the "I am going to…" gear and start it up.

Book learning works, but only to an extent.  You can read about building a fire, but mastering that skill requires building one with your bare hands.  Imagine how you’d feel if you actually needed this skill and never used it before.  You can research data recovery procedures all you want, but mastering this skill requires an actual recovery or two.  Again, imagine how you’d feel if you actually needed this skill and never used it before. 

And the same goes with writing, you can read about writing novels, comics or screenplays all you want, but mastering that skill requires writing one of your very own.  Places refer to it as hands-on learning or OJT (on the job training).  In historical days, it fell under the guise of "apprenticeship".  And that type of training still works to this day.

Don’t get caught up learning everything about your craft or figuring out how to make something perfect.  Perfect is NOT a reasonable goal.  Near-perfect is NOT a reasonable goal.  You know what a good goal is?  Done.  You can do more with a completed rough draft than you can with a stack of books on writing.

Think of it like swimming.  Are you going to read a bunch of books or watch a bunch of other swimmers and expect to dive into the pool swimming perfectly?  Not likely.  You learn enough to get started and dive right in to get those arms and legs flailing in some semblance of a stroke (like a nice, easy doggie paddle).  Then you swim, swim, swim until it gets easier.  Evaluate your progress.  Give yourself an honest assessment and then take time to read/research/ask questions on how to fix problems you find.  But only do enough to find a solution and hop back to it.  Swim, swim, swim some more until you master that technique and get moving to the next level.

So, cut those "I am going to…" phases short and get moving.  Whenever you catch yourself going "I am going to…" just stop and change it to "I am going to get started right now."

I’ve noticed a strange recurring habit amongst companies out there.  It’s not quite a pet peeve, but it does have a heavy annoyance factor.  And it costs companies millions of dollars.  Here’s the setup:

Take your hardware budget and invest it in a million dollars worth of equipment.  Enterprise-level server.  State of the art routers.  Heavy duty SAN(s).

Now, do one of the following with that environment:

1 – Put dozens of resource-heavy applications/databases on that box and realize you should have spent the extra couple bucks on the next level enterprise server that has the backplane to support all those systems simultaneously.  "Come on, bits and bytes.  We can squeeze through that small tunnel!  Follow me!"

2 – Do just enough configuring to get the system up-and-running and leave it at that.  We threw money at a hardware solution, so that hardware should just motor along at screaming fast speeds right out of the box.  Who cares if that SAN could get a hundred times more throughput if things are configured properly?  Who wants a network that’s consistently timely and responsive? "Uhh… huhuh.  Uhhh… huh, he said box."

3 – Give an executive a personal file server all to him/herself. "Dude, they made me an exec and check out how fast I can stream my mp3s now."

4 – Use it as your development and production box where you’re letting your young system administrator (read: low salary power user laterally moved into the position) cut his/her teeth getting to know the ins and outs of the system.  "But we spent too much money on the server to afford a sysadmin!"

5 – Use it to keep your casserole warm for the company pot luck.  "Wow, this casserole is so… warm.  Someone promote this man!"

6 – Trade it in for an enterprise server with less CPU (and the exact same backplane) to save on licensing costs when upgrading the system due to resource-related performance problems on the server.  "Who needs CPUs when we can replace them one-for-one and get cooking with cores?"

Tech Survival Tip: When you encounter any of these situations in the wild, your two best options are to either run (run far… get a taxi if you have to) or negotiate a really good severance package or an upfront bonus (or both if you’re the Corbin Dallas of salary negotiators).

Just sitting here on my 3+ hour layover (don’t ask why I have a 3 hour layover ’cause if I told you then I’d have to bore you) and taking notice of some of the technology hanging around in this waiting area.

  • One other person like me is typing away on a netbook.
  • Six people have out laptops.
    • Two of those laptops are giant screen ones… plastic briefcases stuffed with circuits, lcd and components.
  • Two people playing on Nintendo DS systems.
  • One person using a PSP.  I don’t think she’s playing games though.  Looks more like she’s watching a movie.  The fact I was able to deduce that makes me feel slightly stalkerish.  So… moving on…
  • Twelve people are typing feverishly on their phones.  Texting or tweeting something like "OMGWTFPDA!!!  Some guy with a netbook at the airport is totally stalking me and I’m not even trying to draw attention to myself!"
    • Surprisingly, only five of these people have iPhones/smartphones.
  • Six people are listening to iPods or an equivalent mp3 player.
    • A few of those (like me and my Sansa) are also utilizing other technology.
  • Twenty-four people are reading books, newspapers or magazines.
    • All using old school paper-n-ink technology.  Not a single Kindle or ebook reader among them.
  • Not technology-related but added out of curiosity… nine people are taking a between flight nap.

There comes a day when you’re wandering through one of those massive fortresses of commercialism and notice this aisle full of flashlights.  There are the aircraft aluminum-bodied ones, which are a premium choice for bouncers.  There are lantern ones for those hesitant to play with  oil and fire in the middle of a nice, flammable forest.  And it goes on… cheap flashlights and expensive flashlights and those snake flashlights you can wrap around stuff and point where you want them to go.

You don’t really need a flashlight, but your daughter likes to "camp" in her room and has burned through tons of batteries with lights you kept around for emergencies.  You decide to go with this neat little winding flashlight that can be recharged by hand-cranking it.  Yay!  That battery graveyard just got a little smaller around the house.  And you’re a step ahead… get one for her to use and also get one to keep in the kitchen drawer for emergencies.

And then that day comes when the smaller UPS in your office start with their dreaded wail, "Aah! There’s no power in the house so I’m gonna make this constant annoying beeping sound to help drain the life out of this poor 12-year old battery all the more quickly and wake up the entire family late at night.  Weeeeeee…" 

No problem.  I’ll go downstairs, get my flashlight, look up the number for the power company, and call them up to report the outage.  The sooner they’re aware of the problem, the sooner it can get fixed.

But there is a problem.  No emergency flashlight in the kitchen drawer.  No light means reading the last electric bill for the 24-hour number will be a bit more difficult.

Luckily, my long years as a dba prepared me for such a situation.  I had a backup.  I had a backup where my daughter wouldn’t think to look for one.  I guess it could be considered an "off-site" backup in that sense.  But the things about backups are… if you don’t use them from time-to-time, you can forget them.  That’s just what happened here.  I forgot where I put my backup light source.

Good thing I had my netbook handy with its 8 hours of battery life.  And a nice bright screen.  With my netbook in hand, I got the phone number, called the power company, and even managed to finally track down my backup lights (some nice little 170 hour waterproof LED lights… if I only had a pool, I’d be tempted to find out how waterproof they really are).

So, thank you, netbook.  You may cause my hands to cramp up from time-to-time with your scaled down keyboard and you definitely aren’t helping my tech industry inflicted eyestrain.  But you made a damn good flashlight and kept me entertained in the dark with a mean game of Texas hold ’em as I waited for the power to be restored.

After over a decade of suffering through sleep apnea, you’d think I’d understand the futility of trying to be productive when sleep deprived.  For a while, I had so much going on, my brain wouldn’t shut down at night when it was time to sleep.  It would take me hours to fall asleep.  And of course, I didn’t take that lying down… I just kept working on this and that (very slowly as if thinking through pea soup fog) until I was tired enough to fall asleep.

The major problem with that strategy is I’m a night owl by nature.

So, my wife finally took action.  After the extensive (and obligatory) car chase scene and the showdown fight in some old abandoned warehouse, she was able to force feed me some melatonin to get me to sleep.  An hour afterwards… I dropped like a rock.

I’ve been taking it regularly since then and with some actual quality sleep under my belt for a week, I was able to be three times as productive and get caught back up on work.  Now, I’m looking at all these projects that sat on hold for a long time when I didn’t think I had time to work on them and familiarizing myself with them.  "Hi, everyone!"  "Hey, Jeff!  We missed you!"  "Aww, thanks guys."

And I’m having fun again.