Why Orange is the New Black Sucks

download (4)I don’t have to tell any of you what Orange is the New Black is. (If I do, go do some research. I’ll wait.)

The first season was interesting. I watched the fuck out of it in two binge sessions, in part over respect for the book, in part for Captain Janeway, in part for the objective quality of the story and production.

But then it started to suck. And why it sucks is an important thing for writers to learn from.

Thing is, as the second and third (and fourth) seasons developed, they gave us insights into the backgrounds and lives of the (at least from the perspective of the first season) secondary characters. This wasn’t a bad idea exactly, but the execution was a problem.

I’ve seen this problem before. I might have mentioned once or twice how I’m an avid player of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and GURPS. For those who don’t know, those games often simulate combat. Some folks say they want those rules to be as realistic as possible. I disagree, because “roll to see if you pee yourself” isn’t fun for anybody. The rules should instead create an entertaining illusion.

Too much realism makes entertainment not entertaining.

In the case of Orange is the New Black, they overcorrected toward realism with the stories of those secondary characters. Occasionally interesting and relatable people end up in prison. Most of the time, though, inmates tend to be kind of stupid, kind of mean, and really boring.

Which describes all of the characters we’ve been exploring in the subsequent seasons of Orange. They made the characters too damn realistic. They made them like (unusually attractive) inmates. Stupid. Mean. Boring.

Not folks I’m going to relate to. Not folks I’m likely to root for.

Rory Miller, a man I deeply respect and actively like, wrote Violence: A Writer’s GuideIt’s a solid work on some of the realities of violence, and important for people who think they know violence to understand. It dives deep into the yucky of that world, and does provide excellent insight into the psychology of violence and of violence professionals. A writer who wants to write the motivations of criminals and cops well should read this book.

On the other hand, his advice on how to write violent scenes makes the same mistake. Realistically written violence isn’t entertaining. Writing violence well consists of myriad small skills, very few of which are related to writing a realistic scene.

Which brings me back to Orange.

The stories they tell touch on some important social issues, in a highly visible way that might actually change some minds or at least raise awareness. And if that’s their plan, then the realistic portrayals of these unfortunates might be exactly what’s called for.

But as writers, our job is to entertain. Even if we’re making a point. Entertaining stories grab more readers. Convert more thoughts. Engage more people. Don’t make the mistake of making realism more important than entertainment.

19 Ways to Fuck Up Your Conference

wipSo I’ve been out of rotation for a few weeks, owing to my presence on the conference circuit. It’s ironic. I go out there and tell people all about the importance of blogging regularly and not missing a day of your social media presence…and while I’m doing that, what I’m not doing is any blogging or social media.

I’m not perfect. Just ask my ex wife.

While I’m busy not following my own advice about conferences, here are pieces of advice I’m (mostly) following. These are the biggest things you should never do at a writing conference, no matter what.

  1. Forget Your Business Cards. In both directions. Make and bring your business cards (Zazzle.com will give you hundreds for under 20 bucks), and ask for cards from everybody. Also ask everybody you meet for theirs. Scribble a line about how you met, and a cool thing about them. More on why later.
  2. Be Rude. Even a Little Bit. Seriously. Your job is to meet people and make them want to see you again. Snark isn’t sexy. It’s just rude. Bad manners aren’t rakish and attractive. They’re just rude. Ignoring somebody who “isn’t important enough” is just tomfoolery. Be polite to everybody, as often as you can.
  3. Skip a Session. You don’t know it all. Every session of classes will have something you can learn from, so go to every class you can. While you’re in there, talk with everybody nearby. Half the reason you shouldn’t skip sessions is who you’ll meet while you’re out and about.
  4. Forget to Ask Questions. When in conversation with others (at conferences, but really in the rest of your life, too), ask at least one question for every statement you make about yourself. It helps everybody else feel important. You’ll learn things. And when talking to presenters, it’s a welcome change of pace.
  5. Sleep at Home. Seventy percent of the best stuff at conferences happens after hours. That means at the bar, and in the lounges, and at dinner. If you sleep at home instead of on site, you have to go home early. You miss out on some of the best networking. My two most important contacts in publishing, I made at the bar.
  6. Get Too Drunk. Yes, you should hoist a few pints with your colleagues. Yes, you should buy a round for the agent you really want to get close to. No, you should not get more than “two-beer drunk” (which takes more or less than two beers depending on how much of a drinker you are). People remember that guy. And not fondly. Some folks remember me being that guy, so I am speaking truth here.
  7. Follow Agents. We all know you’re there to talk with agents. We all know you’re really excited about speaking with them. But it one’s going to the bathroom, or heading up to her room…leave her alone. The same basic conversation etiquette that applies everywhere else also applies here.
  8. Skip Reading Bios. Some folks take a shotgun blast approach to approaching agents, editors and presenters. Don’t do that. Take the time to read their bios. First off, it’s polite to know a little about somebody before asking them to spend time talking to you. Second, it helps you identify which people are most interested in what you’re writing. Third, it gives you ideas for opening up conversation. The bios will be among the most useful things you read in the conference brochure.
  9. Dress For the Weather. This is counterintuitive, but important. Conferences happen indoors. If you wear a sweater on a cold day, or a sun dress on a hot one, you’re going to be uncomfortable inside. Dress like you would for a day in the office, and wear layers if you’re sensitive to cold or heat.
  10. Forget Your Gum. You’ll be talking with people up close and personal all day, in between bad snacks and hotel meals. Bring some gum or mints and use them liberally. Seriously. I cannot overstate how important this is.
  11. Fail to Follow Up. With contacts or ideas you got in the presentations. Sit down in the week after the conference and make a list of all the people you want to contact and all the things you want to try. Then make a schedule for doing all of it. This can take months (or years), but get on top of that fast and start working the plan. Otherwise, why did you go to the conference in the first place?
  12. Show Up Without Goals. It’s great to show up and see where things take you, and flexibility will definitely help you make the most out of the conference. But do come with three to five concrete goals. These can be “Make real contact with X” or “Understand how to write a good query letter” or anything like that. Whatever will most immediately advance your career as a writer. Review them every morning, and at lunch, each day of the conference.
  13. Sit in the Back Row. The back row is for the druggies and slackers. It’s not for the cool kids. Sit in the front row so you’ll be more noticeable and engaged. Presenters remember front-row faces. (Don’t mimic me here. I’ve been told by enough presenters that having peers in their class sometimes freaks them out. So I sit closer to the back to avoid that).
  14. Bring Friends. The point of a conference is to meet new people. Coming without friends forces you to find new friends. It’s that simple. If you do come with buddies, make a deal to only eat one meal together each day. It’s a good way to split that particular difference.
  15. Get Burned Out. Conferences take a lot of energy and focus. If you don’t believe me, just look at the attendees come Sunday morning. Give yourself permission to grab a nap, take a walk around the building, whatever it takes for you to go back into the fray completely refreshed. Even if that means breaking some of the other rules on this list.
  16. Expect Spoon Feeding. This isn’t grade school. It’s a conference for adult professionals. I’ve noticed sometimes that some folks show up expecting all they need to know and do to be spelled out in simple sentences with a pencil diagram. Ain’t so. Sorry. You’ll be responsible for your own success (even though lots of friendly people will help you if you remember to ask).
  17. Ignore Your Peers. You’re there to meet agents and get advice from successful writers, but don’t blow off fellow writers operating at your level. You have information to give them, and get from them — and it’s great to talk shop with people who are feeling exactly your pain.
  18. Get Star Struck. On the flip side of #17, don’t forget that the conference presenters and organizers are human. Just humans like you. Don’t be afraid to talk with them. They’re on site to talk with people and give back. Help them do that.

Number Nineteen has a very special place in my heart, and in the hearts of every agent, editor and other presenter I’ve ever spoken to. Number nineteen: never, ever, ever be a dickhead when you’re asking questions. When you get called on, ask a brief question that can benefit everybody in the room. This is not the time to show off how much you know, or to get specific, personal advice on your specific, personal project. Plenty of time to do that when you follow up after the conference. Seriously. I hate this behavior, and so does everybody good in the world. Every time you do this, Odin kills a kitten.



A Tale of Two Planners (Month One)

quote-Dwight-D.-Eisenhower-in-preparing-for-battle-i-have-always-47920I’ve talked before (lots of times) about the importance of organization for writing, training and pretty much anything else you want to get done. You plan your work, try to work your plan, adjust your plan because it didn’t work, then get your work done.

I struggle with this. I am not by nature an organized individual, and having two kids makes it hard. For 2016, I Kickstarted two tools to help me: a pair of calendar journals that claim they will help me organize and motivate myself. Each month this year, I will tell you what I’ve learned about them. The end goal is to buy for 2017 the one I liked best…or to hack together a personalized version that uses the best of both.

Here’s What We’ve Got So Far
Continue reading

A Tale of Three Habits

FirstPersonShooterIt’s January, a time for resolutions.

Resolutions are really just about new habits. Habits you hope to grow. Habits you want to eliminate.

I’m so-so when it comes to habits. Most of my success as a writer and person comes from developing some good habits early on in my life. My bad habits I’ve had a harder time getting rid of, and I’ve focused mainly on developing other positive habits that mitigate those bad ones (like exercising lots so I can keep drinking soda).

But change is good. Even trivial change that proves you’re capable of changing. Over the past couple of years, I made three significant (if not terribly important) changes in my life. I’m sharing them with you here in hopes that they’ll show you how easy it can be to flex your will muscles and shift things in your favor.

Habit One: Shooting Wrong

I have a confession to make: I used to be a look inverter.

For folks who don’t know what that is, “look inversion” is a setting on your controls in shooting games. It means you set the controls so that toggling the look joystick down makes you look up (like with a plane’s controls), whereas the normal settings have the joystick go down for down and up for up.

Look inversion felt more natural to me, but it’s not the default setting. That meant that every time I borrowed somebody else’s game or log-in, I had to go mess around with the control settings. Then a couple of games came out that allowed look inversion, but had a chapter or long scene where look inversion didn’t work.

So I decided to stop look inverting. I played through an older version on HALO from start to finish, about an hour a night, and did player-versus-player Call of Duty with my teenage son. After about a month, regular look settings were as reflexive to me as look inversion had been.

And that monkey was off my back.

Habit Two: My Shoes

Did you know that most of us are tying our shoes wrong? I learned it the way you did:

  1. Make a knot
  2. Make a loop with one string
  3. Make a loop with the other string and wrap it clockwise around the first
  4. Make a knot with the loops

I learned that when I was five. Thirty-five years later, I figured I had it down. Then along came this asshole.

And this asshole told me I’d been doing it wrong. And he was correct. His way (tying the loops counterclockwise) kept my shoes from coming untied.

So I decided to learn how to do that. It followed the typical progression of skill building:

  • Unconscious Incompetence — Not knowing you’re doing it wrong. Everybody’s starting point. For me, this stage lasted three and a half decades.
  • Conscious Incompetence — Knowing you’re doing it wrong, but reflexively doing it right. Includes all the times you have to start a process reminding yourself to do things the right way. I put on my shoes two or three times a day, and spent probably three weeks in this stage.
  • Conscious Competence — The stage where you’re doing it right automatically, but have to focus on the task to do it right even though you remember more often than you don’t. This stage lasted another two weeks or so.
  • Unconscious Competence — Where doing it right  is a natural part of what you do. You do it without thinking about it. After six weeks, this new method was just the way I tie my shoes.

Elapsed time: one-and-a-half months. And it totally made my life better and easier. You should seriously try this because (a) it shows you how easy it is to change a habit when you put your mind to it and (b) it’s great walking around without having your shoes keep coming untied.

The Floating MosqueHabit Three: Driving on the Correct Side of the Road

I think I mentioned that I spent last year in Malaysia, where they drive on the left side of the road.

Learning this took me a little more than a month, but brought into sharp focus a wrinkle in that four-step progression I went through with tying my shoes.

During the conscious incompetence stage, you develop the reflex to automatically contradict what you naturally want to do. You realize your impulse is wrong, and get in the habit of correcting that impulse.

Then comes a day when your impulse is correct (you’ve reached the conscious competence stage)…but you also have the habit of doing the opposite of what your impulse says. So you have the following internal conversation:

“Dude, do it this way.”

“No!!!! That’s wrong!!!”

“Are you sure?”

“Hell yes, I’m sure!!!”

“Which one of us is right?”


I went through this with tying my shoes, but tying your shoes is neither as time-sensitive nor as life-threatening as turning into traffic in a country where the roads routinely include people transporting livestock on their motorcycles.

Many panicked seconds (and only one instance of running my car up onto a curb), that phase passed and I was able to confidently, calmly, turn correctly in Malaysian traffic.

Until I came home and had to learn to drive on the right side of the road.

Okay, So What’s the Point?

Changing habits is good for you, even changing small habits with no serious impact on your life. I’d say changing one of those habits is actually better to start. Its triviality takes away the guilt and other head games you get when you try to change habits that mean something important. You can focus on the process of change, rather than on the pressure you’re getting to lose weight, or quit coke, or whatever.

And once you’ve succeeded at changing once, you know how to do it with something that matters.

What are you going to change this quarter? Tell folks about it in the comments. I’d love to learn from your experience.

What Three Years Taught Me

A little le11951873_10208090504609095_3598338603708728699_nss than a decade and a half ago, I returned to the USA after spending the better

part of two years living in Japan. This was quite the adventure for my late-twenty-something ass, and I sent an email about the important things I learned from that journey. As I settle in after taking my wife and two sons to live in Malaysia for a year, I thought it would be fun to post those thoughts for all to see…with maybe a little color commentary from my older and possibly wiser self….

In the past two years, I have crossed an ocean twice, swum in four different seas, visited six countries, lived in eight apartments, used fifteen different modes of transportation.  I have slept on three continents, visited the temples of four religions, trained in five styles of martial arts, spoken three languages.  I’ve seen countless wonders and made lifelong friends.  Through, because of and sometimes in spite of these experiences, I have learned lot.  This is my attempt to share what lessons I can articulate.

I’ve learned about fear.  I don’t mean the big fears like death and failure.  I mean the subtle ones like embarrassment and inadequacy.  The first thing I learned was that I was, in fact, afraid.  I think we all are to one degree or another.  Once I admitted this to myself, though, the most interesting thing happened.  I found the fear had lost a lot of its teeth just from my knowing it was there.  By accepting that I was afraid I wasn’t good enough (for example, not tough and resourceful enough to make it in a foreign country, or not interesting and attractive enough to dance with a pretty girl), I found I could take that fear, put it in my pocket and carry it with me right into a the frightening situation.  The fear didn’t go away, mind you.  It just lost its power to affect my actions.

Fear changes when you’re a parent. As an unmarried 20-something, I had no idea what fear really was. But that other part — the part about naming your fear and owning it — is still not only true, but important. That goes for big fears like losing your child in a third-world hole and more esoteric things like screwing up your visa. 

I’ve learned the value of asking for what I want.  Maybe this doesn’t surprise anybody else in the world, but I’ve found that if I ask for something, I will quite often get it.  Like a lot of men, I have difficulty asking for help.  It feels like an admission of weakness.  Living in a country where I couldn’t read and didn’t really speak the language forced me to ask for help in all manner of things.  I’d need directions to the train, a translator for the doctor, a legal advisor.  In Japan I became accustomed to asking for help several times a day, and when what I wanted was a way out of an unacceptable job and living situation, I asked for it.  And a solution better than I had dared hope for was handed to me.  Now how about that?

I can only double down on this. Ask for what you want. Ask all the time, and teach your kids to ask. Is tripling down a thing? Seriously, this is maybe the most important thing I learned over there.

I’ve learned to appreciate every single day.  The wonder and excitement of living in a new country got me into the habit of paying attention, which brought with it the miraculous gift of noticing the world.  It’s a fantastic place, full of sunsets and critters, of noble actions and pretty girls.  Even sadness is beautiful, when you’re living in it and not just abjectly looking for it to end.  I still forget this lesson from time to time, and find myself bulling through a routine or worrying about tomorrow at the expense of the park I’m walking through now.  But when I remember this particular lesson, even the rough times have their value.

Okay. This sounds like Disney had a baby with Tony Robbins and had a writer for Hallmark put the whole thing to words. Man, but I was full of myself (and probably still am). That said, I fell out of that habit as the whole real-world-mortgage-kids thing consumed more and more of my time. This trip — and the same resulting exercise in presentness — reminded me of how much I enjoyed being in that head space. 

Though in truth, watching my kids experience in their newness a world I’ve seen spin a fair number of times did a lot of this for me even before we went away.

12118667_10208133351440239_418024667194622762_nI’ve learned the importance of family.  Not that this was a new lesson for me; I’ve said for years that my family is the best thing that ever happened to me.  But the past two years have shown me new facets of this absolute truth.  Being away from my family showed me how important it is to maintain contact through email, phone and letters.  Don’t snub snail mail, now.  Nothing beats the feeling of an honest to goodness handwritten letter in your mailbox.  It was all the little notes and emails and gifts from all of you that helped me through my patches of homesickness and general ups and downs.  Another thing I discovered was the importance of building a family everywhere you go.  Anybody who confines his or her definition of ‘family’ to blood relations is missing an important point.  My good fortune of meeting Hamid and Yumiko, and of having Lorna in Nagasaki with me, gave me the supportive family of choice that we all need to be whole.

Doubling down on this one, too, but not in the necessarily positive sense. I’ve made family wherever I’ve gone my entire life, but failed to do that in Malaysia. We made friends, but what with the kids and our geography we never really found that tight fit. Our next trip abroad, we’ll have to take steps about that. It’s something I missed desperately. 

12032135_10208025813711863_7634443543926002641_nI’ve learned that the chief traditional food of half the countries in the world is rice with
some stuff in it.  Really.  Go look for yourself.

I found no contradicting evidence.

I’ve learned about how to be alone, about how to remain whole when far from your support network and living in your own apartment a long way from home.  In learning how to be alone, I also learned how to give myself more fully to other people.  I think that, when someone is not whole and comfortable on their own, they end up needing to take little pieces of their friends in order to fill themselves up.  Once you’ve become a whole person, though, it turns out that you can give more of yourself to the people around you, and do so more willingly.

I had exactly no chance to explore this for myself, but we had a chance to explore this as a family unit. At home, we always have other non-nuclear family members wandering in and out of our space, including two adults who live in our home. I really prefer having those “extra” folks around, but it was instructive to see how we functioned without them around. There are things I will change (and other things I’ll leave just as they are) as a result. 

I’ve learned that I can do anything I set my mind to.  I’ve navigated the Japanese rail systems and the Beijing subway.  I’ve lived and succeeded in a foreign culture where I didn’t speak the language.  I’ve dropped myself into a group of people where I knew just one person and made good and lifelong friends.  The important thing in this, I think, is that the ‘I’ in these statements it totally subjective.  I have learned that the limits we set for ourselves are far, far lower than the limits we actually have.  Ghandi once said that the difference between what we do and what we are capable of would solve most of our problems.  Chuck Norris once said that limits do not exist for the person unwilling to accept them.  We are all of us capable of so much more than we think.  I am most thankful for this last lesson, and for the things it means I can do with my future.

Of everything I learned over there, this was the one that stuck with me the most over the intervening years. Combined with a push in 2009 from my friend, coach and mentor Tom Callos, it’s responsible for how I now spend my life doing mostly what I want, when I want, and coaching others on how to make that their life, too.

Watching my oldest son learn this lesson, and seeing him interact with the challenges of life in the USA, was one of the greatest joys of this adventure. It will be a joy to see what kind of adult he turns into…and whether or not he decides to spend some time Over There as part of his own journey.