The Myth of Creative Bliss: How I learned to make Resistance an ally, not an enemy

This is a guest blog post I wrote for Hypable:

Tackling a creative project is exciting and full of promise, but once we begin, the challenges and self-doubt we encounter can often derail the best of intentions. But once we identify Resistance, and recognize it as part of the creative process, we become more empowered to meet our creative goals. 

rebelgeniusInto the Unknown: From Animation to Publishing

In December of 2014, the series finale of The Legend of Korra aired. After more than a decade spent breathing life into the Avatar universe, I decided to step away from my nearly twenty-year career in animation and transition onto a new creative path, one that was unfamiliar and uncertain: I planned to write my first novel.

I already had the concept: art as magic. And I had ten years’ worth of notes, ideas, and character sketches to pull from. I planned to call on my own experience as an artist to tell a story in which a group of young artists would set off on a high-stakes adventure, confronting dangerous creatures and villains along the way. With my intention clear, I couldn’t wait to get started. I envisioned myself blissfully writing for hours, lost in this new fantastical world. Each morning, I fired up my computer, sipped my coffee, and sat down to write. But those blissful moments? They were elusive and impossible to sustain.

Instead, I found my breath shortening, my heartbeat quickening, and my body tensing. Rather than joy, I was met with its opposite: anxiety (and its cousin, overwhelming self-doubt). Why did I ever leave animation? I asked myself. Who was I to think I could write a book? My writing is awful, I told myself over and over. No one is going to want to read this crap.

Shaking Hands with Resistance

I’d felt that unease before, but because I was trying something new, the anxiety stabbed more sharply and forcefully. After reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, I learned this feeling has a name: Resistance. It is the embodiment of all our anxieties and self-doubts. It’s the voice that insists we’re not good enough or smart enough or creative enough.

And that voice can be loud. At times, deafening.

But when I put a name to Resistance, I found I could lessen its power. I couldn’t make it go away entirely, and as it turned out, I didn’t want to. Resistance became an essential part of my creative process. Identifying it helped illuminate what would become the theme of my book: How through creative acts, we have the power to transform ourselves and society.

Rebel Genius as metaphor for the creative process

In the Renaissance-inspired world of Rebel Genius, we meet an aspiring artist named Giacomo, a 12-year-old orphan who lives in the sewers underneath the city of Virenzia. One night, after surviving a violent attack, Giacomo discovers that he has a Genius — a birdlike creature that acts as his protector and muse. At first, Giacomo is thrilled to have his own Genius, but immediately panic sets in. Because in Giacomo’s society, there is only one artist who is allowed to have a Genius — the empire’s leader, the authoritarian Supreme Creator.

Giacomo is discovered by three other children who also have Geniuses and they bring him to a secret studio where he studies with an old, blind artist. Giacomo learns how to use his Genius to tap into the energy in the universe and manifest it into powerful, glowing shapes.

He also discovers he has a unique ability to access a potent creative source called the Wellspring. In Rebel Genius, the Wellspring is the primordial ooze of creation and the source of all that we taste, smell, touch, see, and hear. When Giacomo accidentally opens it the first time, he is met with a maelstrom of foul odors, deafening booms, and freezing winds. Fearing its power, Giacomo steers clear of the Wellspring, though over the course of the book, he learns more about it and how to gain some control over it. Metaphorically, the Wellspring represents the creative process – a swirling cacophony of sound and color that an artist must learn to tame.

After realizing the scope of his talents, Giacomo has a unique insight into the location of the first of three Sacred Tools – powerful objects that have the potential to create or destroy. But when he is asked to go on this quest, Giacomo balks. He doesn’t think he’s ready. He’s inexperienced, unsure of himself, and full of anxiety.

Sound familiar?

Trust the process

Living a creative life means we will inevitably have to embrace uncertainty. When we embark on a new creative project (or a new adventure, like Giacomo), it is because we have a burning desire to know something or to discover something about ourselves and the world we live in. But when we set out, we have only a vague idea where we are headed. We may have a destination in mind, but achieving that goal can often feel daunting and overwhelming. Maybe it’s safer to sit out the journey, we tell ourselves.

And if we do muster up the courage to take those first steps on the creative path, you can be sure that Resistance will be lurking around every turn. It will try to frighten you away from your dreams. Giacomo faces vicious creatures and cunning villains on his adventure, which causes him to question himself and whether the goal he seeks is worth the cost. That’s his form of meeting Resistance.

For me, Resistance appeared with each sentence and at the start of every chapter. Some days I was able to fight past the Resistance and write pages I was satisfied with. Other times, Resistance won and I had to regroup and come back to fight it again the next day.

I realized there is no shortcut around the anxiety (believe me, I looked). Any time we forge into the unknown, it is impossible to predict what will happen, so there is bound to be fear. We have no idea if Resistance is going to trounce us, or we will subdue it. In order to continue creating, we have to trust that no matter how hard Resistance tries, it won’t prevail in the long run.

Finishing the book and seeing the first printed copy of it was a proud moment. I felt like I had weathered Resistance and won, or at least survived. But the war isn’t over. Rebel Genius is the first book in a series and a few weeks after completing it, I settled in to tackle the sequel. And sure enough, my old nemesis, Resistance, was waiting for me once again.

But this time, I’m more prepared for it. And even though my writing day is still fraught with self-doubt, I try not to let Resistance get the better of me. My intention is keep moving forwards on this new creative path. I’ll face Resistance whenever it appears and remind myself that the reason it’s there is because I’m venturing into new, creative territory.

And that is exactly where I want to be.

Nerdist Writer’s Podcast

Bryan and I were guests on the Nerdist Writer’s Panel podcast with Ben Blacker. We talked about the creation of the show, the move to digital, and even about the Movie That Shall Not Be Named. Ben does a great job with the podcast and has had some big names on in the past, like Matthew Weiner, Damon Lindelof, and Vince Gilligan, so I was honored to be one of his guests! It’s a great podcast, with in depth interviews with a lot of showrunners from some of the best series out there. A great resource for aspiring writers and people who just like learning more about how a TV show is made.

Find the interview here on itunes. Also on the Nerdist website.

Writing the Outline

The premise has been written, we’re received notes from the network, and now we’re ready for phase two — the outline!

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Legend of Korra outlines are a detailed, beat for beat description and summary of the episode. Like with the initial story ideas, all the writers gather together in the “writing room” (AKA my office) to pitch out the story in further detail. We use the premise as our starting point, and over the course of two days, flesh out the emotional arcs and story beats as well as pitch out dialogue ideas and jokes.

On day one, we spend a good chunk of time working out the entire plot in detail. The premise provides us the story framework, but now is the time to nail down story specifics. In the case of “Beginnings, Part 1”, several of you pointed out how different Wan’s character felt in the premise compared with the final episode. His personality definitely evolved over the course of the writing process, due mainly to the fact that he was a brand new character. Bryan and I always imagined him as a classic trickster hero. In myth, the trickster hero often causes change in his or her world by messing with people and ignoring society’s rules. Our challenge was to keep Wan’s mischievousness and trickster tendencies, without making him too selfish or unsympathetic. We also wanted to give him a specific personality beyond the trickster archetype. With each stage of the writing, we honed in on his more generous side. He because a guy who always stands up for the downtrodden, whether they’re animals, humans, or spirits. In the outline, you’ll see how the beat of Wan giving up his stolen bread to feed the animals is missing. I added that in the script phase to show Wan’s generosity and also set up his connection with animals (which comes into play when he saves Mula from the trap).

A few logistics about how we structure the outline: The show is split up into three acts, and each act has seven to eight story beats. As we discuss the story in the writer’s room and pitch out the beats, the writer will write a sentence or two describing that beat on an index card and tack it to the wall. This is usually done in order, but sometimes we might have some beats figured out at the beginning and the end, but act 2 will be empty. Another way we approach the story structure is to look at the premise and decide what our act breaks will be. The goal of the act break is to have a dramatic moment that turns the story in a different direction (and keeps the audience watching after the commercial break!) We then fill in the missing beats around those tent-pole moments.

With this in mind, we knew that act 1 would have a lot of set-up involved. We had to show Korra in the beginning, establish Wan and his normal life, and see him enact the plan to steal the fire from the lion-turtle. For a while we thought the first act break would be Wan’s banishment, but that would’ve made the first third of the show too long. Therefore, we decided that the act 1 break would be Wan returning his tree house and showing his friends that he stole the fire, a bold action that causes the story to take a new direction in act 2.

Act 2 encompasses Wan using the fire to defend his friends from the Chous, being banished, and surviving in the wilds. The end of act 2 shows Wan saving Mula the cat-deer by standing up to the group of hunters. In act 3, having gained Aye-aye’s trust, Wan lives with the spirits and learns to master his firebending skills. Then he sets off into the world where he encounters Raava and Vaatu. He splits the fighting spirits and learns that his actions have great consequences, setting up “Beginnings, part 2”.

And after a day of discussions, we have all our index cards filled out. This is what the episode looked like, broken into beats.

The pitch out cards. The different colors denote different characters.

The pitch out cards. The different colors show the Korra beats separate from the Wan beats.

Act 1

  • A weakened Korra is taken back to Bhanti Village. She wants to regain her memory.
  • Shaman tells Korra her spirit is weak – if she doesn’t regain memory, she will grow weaker and die.
  • Korra taken to isolation chamber. She must return “to the beginning.”
  • Korra goes into sensory deprivation, transition into flashback.
  • Wan chased by bullies through city streets – tricks them and gets away.
  • Wan meets up with Jaya and Crazy Yao back at hideout. Wan has plan to change things.
  • Goes out with hunters. Gets power of fire from lion-turtle, but ditches hunters and sneaks back to city.
  • Wan shows Jaya he has firebending.

Act 2

  • Wan demands food from bullies. They attack – he firebends. They run scared but now town is on fire.
  • Fire rages. Lion-turtle puts it out, Wan tackled and arrested.
  • Wan banished. Lion-turtle takes mercy, lets him keep firebending.
  • Wan’s first night in wilds – frightening, mystical. Can’t sleep, keeps getting attacked, ends up filthy and starving.
  • Finds oasis, tries to trick spirit guardian but is driven away (pretends he’s a spirit).
  • Comes across animal caught in trap. Tries to free it.
  • Hunters show up and order Wan to turn over animal. Wan refuses.

Act 3

  • Wan fights hunters using fire and knowledge of the wilds, but he’s overtaken.
  • Spirit from oasis saves Wan – tricks hunters into attacking each other – one gets away.
  • Spirit brings Wan back to oasis to heal – “you’re different than the others.”
  • Montage – intercut Wan’s skills growing with Wan’s legend growing. Wan lives in harmony with the spirits.
  • Wan and cat-deer rest – spirits and creatures flee a giant rumbling/chaos. Wan checks it out.
  • Dark and Light spirits fight and destroy everything. Wan splits them apart.
  • Dark Spirit escapes. Light Spirit tells Wan he has thrown world out of balance.
  • Korra twitches violently.

Now that we have all the beats, we spend the second day talking through the whole story, card by card. We pitch ideas for dialogue and jokes during this pass, while our writer’s assistant furiously takes notes of everything we discuss during the course of the day. At the end of day two, the writer takes the cards, all the written notes, and has about a week to write the outline. While it seems like all the heaving lifting was done in the pitch out, writing the outline still takes a lot of thought and skill. Many ideas are discussed over the two days, so it’s the writer’s job to hone all those ideas into the structure we discussed in an entertaining and clear way.

One thing to keep in mind as you’re outlining your own stories is to make sure the main character actively drives the story forward. Often a story will hit a wall or fall flat if the main character simply reacts to events around him or her. In Wan’s case, he steals the fire, saves the cat-deer, and splits Raava and Vaatu — all major story points which coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) correspond with the act breaks. Sure, events happen to Wan as well — he’s bullied, he’s banished, and he’s attacked by various spirits. But each of these events has an effect on Wan and results in him choosing to act in a new way moving forward.

In the outline, you’ll see there is a lot of sample dialogue. I’ll be the first to admit, most of it’s not that good. But that’s not its purpose here. Rather, the outline dialogue is used to get a sense of the kind of thing a character might say, but much of the time the dialogue is very “on the nose” and doesn’t always capture his or her voice, especially in an episode like this with many new characters. Lines and jokes from the outline often make it through to the final script, but they’re usually tweaked along the way. At this point, I don’t worry to much about getting the dialogue exactly right — I save that for the script. The goal of the outline is to give a clear picture of how the story will flow and how the characters will act.

Also in our outlines, there are headers indicating location and time of day. These are the same slug lines that appear in the final script. Their purpose is to indicate each time we are moving to a new location (necessary for the BG designers and storyboard artists to know what locations will be used). And later, the BG painters will reference the times of day in the script so they know whether a BG painting is supposed to be morning, day, night, etc.

As you read the outline, you’ll notice it much more closely resembles the finished episode, story-wise. But there is still some character-finessing to do as well as finalizing all the dialogue.

I find the story pitch out process and outline writing really fun. This is where the vision of what the story will be becomes much clearer and the possibilities (and problems) are more evident.

Click on the link to read the outline: K207_OUTLINE_11.10.11

Next time — the script!

 

5 books to help you create a compelling story

For a long time, I never believed you could learn writing from a book. The writing process seemed too mysterious and magical to be captured and put down in words. But then I tried writing my own stories. I’d start off with what I thought was a killer few pages and then inevitably, I’d hit a wall. “So then what happens?” I wondered while banging my head against my desk. I started looking for some writing books, hoping to find some guidance.

There are thousands of writing manuals out there, each promising to teach you how to write novels, memoirs, or screenplays on the weekends, or during your lunch break, or while your stuck in traffic. There are a few gems out there, but a lot of it is garbage. The main problem with most writing books is they assume you already have your story all figured out and you just need a few pointers to get it down on paper. But this is never (or rarely) the case.

Our stories don’t come to us neatly packaged so that all we have to do is unwrap it and learn to put the right pieces in the right places. Stories are messy. They come to us in bits and pieces, all out of order. Sometimes we get an image, or a character idea, or we’re inspired by a fantasy world or particular time period. But how do you actually take all those disparate elements, all those little nuggets of inspiration, and weave them into a cohesive, entertaining, and enlightening story? There is no one way. No easy answer. But I found the following books smart and sage and they can help jumpstart that idea you’ve been thinking about or help you get over that story problem you haven’t been able to crack. Not every part of  these books resonated with me. The key is to take what works for you and leave the rest. I also find that the fundamentals are similar between books, the authors just have different ways at explaining the ideas.

I’m recommending these five books because they each guide you in creating a story from the ground up. They help you to make sure that the blueprint for your story is strong and sound. Or if you’re rewriting a story, they can help you more quickly hone in on what is working and what is missing in your story.

Cover of "The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps ...

Cover via Amazon

Anatomy of Story by John Truby

While the focus of this book is screenwriting, the teachings can be easily translated to novels. His approach to story transcends the traditional (and oversimplified) three-act structure. Truby’s philosophy is about building a story from the inside out, in an organic way. He likens a story to all living things, in that it has several stages of growth (seven stages, to be exact), which make up the DNA of your story:

1. Weakness and need

2. Desire

3. Opponent

4. Plan

5. Battle

6. Self-revelation

7. New equilibrium

He believes all stories must have these seven elements in order to function, and he provides a ton of great examples of stories and why they work according to his story model. There are also several writing exercises that help you nail down your story as you develop it.

 Story Engineering

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Brooks’ approach to story is very pragmatic. He believes that story is engineered, like a building. You need to nail down the blueprint before you begin the time-consuming part of actually making the thing. His take on story is that there are Six Core Competencies, which are non-negotiable. If your story doesn’t have these, its foundation will be fundamentally unstable. These are:

1. Concept

2. Character

3. Theme

4. Structure

5. Scene execution

6. Writing voice

He goes into depth about each topic, why it’s important, and how to develop it. He also lays out a four-act structure that really resonated with me and helped me look at story structure in a different way.

Brooks also has a great blog that further expands on the topics in his book — storyfix.com

Wired for Story

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Wired for Story is a unique book in that it is both a “how-to” and a scientific exploration into how story works on our brains, based on research in neuroscience. Our brains are hardwired to expect certain things from stories, and if that framework isn’t there, we will put the book down or turn off the movie.

In combination with any of these other books, it provides a great guidepost to developing your story and making sure it triggers the reader’s brain so the reader will want to keep turing the page. This book helped me realize how powerful storytelling can be — that the stories we write can literally change the way people think.

 Inside Story

Inside Story by Dara Marks

This book helps you get to the emotional heart of your story. Marks’ focuses on the character’s transformational arc through the story. The “challenge to grow and evolve as we face the trials in our life is referred to as the transformational arc of the character.” It’s a very psychological approach to building a story structure and plot. It shows how the character’s arc is the plot – the two are not separate. The transformational arc is “the second line of structure wrapped within the structure of the plot.”

Cover of "Stealing Fire from the Gods: A ...

Cover via Amazon

Stealing Fire From the Gods by James Bonnet

Drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, this is the most myth-focused book of this bunch. It explores the reason why we have stories and their importance, while also providing guidance in creating your own stories. I love when he says that stories and the human mind are linked in a way that is deep and meaningful, and if you can tap into the power of great stories, you can tap into your full potential. I first read this book during the early days of developing Avatar and, looking back, I think it really helped me tap into the mythological aspects and archetypes of the story Bryan and I wanted to tell. If I had to recommend one of these books to start with, I’d pick this one.

The biggest takeaway from all these books is that while story is a mysterious beast, it can be tamed with the right techniques. And all the authors stress that these techniques aren’t “rules” that must be followed, but are ways to help you get at the heart of your story and what you want to say.

So while there is no magic bullet to creating a story, I think these books can help you get there a lot quicker, and with fewer false starts.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Dara Marks:

“What is needed in the way of writing tools are instruments of excavation that can unearth the bounty of self-knowledge that lies beneath the surface of our own stories… Technique… is only a device that can be used to help the artist maximize the communication of his or her own creative expression.”

Have any of you read these books and if so, have you found them helpful? Do you think writing can be learned from a book?