Writing Lessons from Angry Birds: Boomerang Bird

Like many of my peers,  I’m semi-addicted to Angry Birds. I used think of flinging birds and obliterating bad piggies as a mindless waste of time (we all need a little of that once in a while), but I can honestly say that playing Angry Birds has improved my writing—enough that I could write off the cost as a business expense if the Android versions weren’t free. Those cute little birds are very effective writing teachers. Seriously.

Angry Green BirdOne of my first Angry Birds Writing Reminders featured that Toucan-inspired guy to the left known as Boomerang Bird because of his interesting ability to double-back and hit things from behind.The first time I encountered Boomerang Bird, the spiffy introductory graphic told me what he could do, but without  revealing his deeper capabilities and nuances.

Boomerang’s behavior after tapping the screen is dependent on his exact speed and trajectory when you tap, and there are so many nuances that in the beginning he rarely did what I expected. With time and experience, I’ve gained some instinctive knowledge of exactly how to launch Boomerang bird and exactly when to tap to get the desired results. I also learned a few things the introductory graphics didn’t mention.

Which brings me to the writing lesson.

Know Your Characters

When I began writing fiction, my characters were so flat you could read right through them. I recall one critiquer who asked point-blank if I’d taken time to get to know my characters, asking a lot of obscure questions I couldn’t answer.  I thought she was nuts. After reflecting on the conversation and recalling the character development process I learned in the theater, I got the point. Since then, I’ve talked with many successful novelists about their character development process. Some journal, some do detailed character profiles, and others (myself included) use method acting principles to get inside characters’ heads and see what makes them tick. I’ve talked with successful novelists who spend months getting to know their characters before writing a single word of their manuscripts. Others just free-write and watch what happens, with the understanding that their first draft will be mostly dreck (which they normally are, anyway).

Whatever method works for you, do it with all the gusto you’ve got. The resulting character depth is like the difference between a plain, flat greeting card and a pop-up card with music and motion.

Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

I was stuck on one level of Angry Birds for weeks, so stuck I considered deleting the game and trying to forget the thrill of obliterating those bad little piggies. I simply couldn’t get that Boomerang at the top of the birdie lineup to turn around the way I wanted and hit that sweet spot.

Out of pure frustration, I launched Boomer straight into the leading side of the pile and watched in amazement while it all crashed, pummeling the pig population and producing three stars. In a flash of realization, I understood why I was having problems with one of my characters.

I’m writing a series with a couple of characters that have unique and unusual abilities. The easy way out as a writer is to let my characters use those special abilities, but after my Boomer Bird revelation, I rewrote a few pages and forced one to not use them. The entire dynamic of the inter-character relationships changed dramatically, and as I dug into the character I found that she was afraid to use her special ability in that situation. It made her vulnerable. Her best friend (my protagonist) picked up on that fear, but interpreted it as anger and rejection, adding even more tension to the friendship, along with layer upon layer of character depth.

Like real life, we don’t know what a character might be capable of until we corner them and force their hand. Take away a man’s job, a mother’s children, or a Pastor’s church and you’ll discover a whole range of hidden strengths, weaknesses, motivators and flaws. It’s those hidden things that make characters interesting. Next time you’re face-to-face with a bland, boring character, boot them out of their comfort zone and see what happens.

Just don’t be a piggie about it.

 

Conquering The Vortex

vortexEvery now and then when I have to run into work after hours—just for a second, a quick in-and-out where you’d leave the car running if you weren’t paranoid about having it stolen—Sharon will say, “Don’t get caught in The Vortex” as I’m walking out the door.

And, I understand exactly what she means.

And, it often doesn’t stop me from getting sucked in.

But, at least she tried.

I admit it. I’ve got a nasty tendency to get sucked into things. It’s a product of my non-linear ADD brain chemistry. If you’re a linear person and you’re already shaking your head like my fifth grade teacher, let me just say that the ADD community forgives you. God loves everyone, even linear people. It’s not your fault. Seriously, it’s okay. We’re used to it.

Now, where was I? Oh yeah. The Vortex. Let’s take a peek behind the curtain at a possible “quick trip to the office” on a Saturday morning to reboot a problem satellite receiver:

9:50 AM: Arrive at office. Window of opportunity to reboot is from 10:00 to 10:06, so I have ten minutes.

9:51:00 AM: Log on to computer intending to check the errant receiver and see if it’s still misbehaving.

9:51:30 AM: Paper I left on keyboard reminds me I didn’t file my expense report, just as intended.

9:52:00 AM: Open Excel, pull receipts off the cork-board, begin entering into expense form.

9:54:15 AM: Realize I’m missing a receipt from one of my online vendors. Open browser, surf to their website.

9:54:30 AM: Promo on vendor’s home page reminds me  need to buy some USB cables. Click promo. Prices look pretty good, but can I do better?

9:54:45 AM: Staying on-task, I log into my account and send the missing receipt to the printer.

9:55:00 AM: While receipt is printing, browse to competitive vendor’s website to comparison shop.

9:57:30 AM: Competitor’s prices not bad. Try a third vendor just to be sure.

9:59:45 AM: Third vendor has best prices. Order a dozen.

10:00:15 AM: Discover why third vendor’s price is so good. They don’t have any in stock.

10:00:30 AM: Google USB cables looking for price as good as third vendor.

10:02:00 AM: How many cheesy discount cable places are on the internet? At least 3,437,294.

10:05:30 AM: Find better price, but product looks like poor quality.

10:06:00 AM: Click back to original vendor. Price doesn’t look so bad after all. Place order.

10:07:30 AM: Print receipt, walk down hall to network printer, right past rack full of satellite receivers.

10:07:45 AM: See errant satellite receiver’s blinking alarm light. Check watch. Say something neither edifying nor uplifting. Next opportunity to reboot satellite receiver is 11:00 to 11:06 AM.

10:09:00 AM: Back in office. Since I have fifty-one minutes before I can try again, I might as well get some work done. Finish expense report.

10:14:00 AM: Check email. Order confirmation says USB cables are out of stock, back-ordered six to eight weeks.

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. You get the point.

The Vortex is one face of a multi-headed creature living inside the ADD brain. It can be an ugly face—A very ugly face—but before you go all condemnation on me, I have to point out that the same brain chemistry that supports The Vortex also supports another face, a beautiful face, a face that is a pure and wonderful gift. I call it The Elevator, because just as The Vortex pushes you down, The Elevator lifts you up.

The Elevator is the face of those wonderful spurts of creative energy that lead us to new inventions, new ways of solving old problems, and new ways of thinking, interacting, and managing our world. The Elevator gives us new stories to tell, or radically different ways of retelling classic stories that make them new again. The Elevator lifts us up to places where we can see things that nobody else has seen. A ride in The Elevator is one of the most exhilarating experiences a person with ADD will ever know. In fact, it is The Elevator that causes me to be a bit offended at the very term Attention Deficit Disorder. In The Elevator, ADD isn’t a disorder. It’s a gift.

The conflict here is that we can’t have one without the other. Remove the chemistry that enables The Vortex, and The Elevator becomes a sweet memory and nothing more. The price of our Elevator ride is The Vortex, just as the price of riding in your car is insurance, fuel and maintenance. We can’t remove The Vortex, but with a little help and a lot of work we can manage it.

Vortex Management

There are no magic check-lists that will keep your Vortex at bay. If there were, I’d be selling it and making a pile of money. You need to find what works for you, and when you find it do it with all you’ve got. Here are a few tools that have worked for me:

  • Understanding.

When I was diagnosed with ADD and began to learn about my brain chemistry and how it works, a whole lot of things about my life began to make sense for the first time. Once I understood that I wasn’t bad, just wired differently than the majority, I could begin to see patterns in my life, ways I’d adjusted and self-medicated and learned to cope with the difference—and ways I hadn’t. This is an area that can be difficult to work on alone. You might need a coach, whether professional or amateur, to help you see yourself. Understanding how you’re wired will equip you to make the most of what God gave you.

  • Nudges.

What I’ve come to understand about The Vortex is that all I need to do to be sucked in is do nothing. In the scenario above, I was sucked into hunting mode. All it took to pull me out of that was a reminder. Understanding how easily I can be sucked in, if I had arranged in advance for a reminder that my window to reboot had arrived, I could have accomplished the reboot the first time around. All it would take is something as simple as an alarm on my phone, or listening to the satellite feed so the silence at the top of the hour would get my attention.

  • Proximity Effect

I’ve learned that there is a direct relationship between proximity and focus. In other words, the farther you are from the thing you need to keep in focus, the harder it is to maintain focus.

Duh.

In my office, I could neither see nor hear the offending equipment I’d come to reboot. If I’d chosen to pass my time working on something close to the receiver, the odds of forgetting the primary mission would drop exponentially.

  • Triage

My friends at Merriam-Webster tell me the word triage means “The sorting of patients…according to their need of care.” In other words, when you go to the ER with a sprained nose, the guy who’s bleeding all over the floor gets first priority. I use triage in my work every day, prioritizing broken equipment, technical requests and deadlines constantly. I’ve learned that a little triage can go a long way toward keeping me on-task and out of The Vortex. In the example above, I didn’t have to go into my office. I could have seen what I needed on the front panel of the receiver. If I’d never opened the office door, I probably would have done the reboot on schedule.

Management=Results

Imagine the scenario above with these simple Vortex management tools applied:

9:50:00 AM: Arrive at office. Window of reboot opportunity is from 10:00 to 10:06, so I have ten minutes.

9:50:30 AM: Stop at office door. TRIAGE: Is there anything in there I NEED to reboot the receiver? No. Don’t even go inside.

9:52:00 AM: Arrive at satellite rack. Observe blinking error light. Check other readouts. Check time.

9:53:00 AM: NUDGE: Patch audio from target receiver into speaker, so end of program will remind me to reboot if I become distracted.

9:55:00 AM: PROXIMITY: Error light on rack a few feet away catches my attention. I investigate.

9:57:30 AM: Error not a big deal. Clear error light.

9:58:00 AM: PROXIMITY: Standing near rack, Take out iPhone, check mail, browse Facebook feed.

9:59:00 AM: Bored. Fling angry birds at pigs to pass the time.

9:59:50 AM: End of satellite program audio reminds me why I’m there.

10:00:00 AM: Reboot receiver.

10:00:30 AM: Fling more birds.

10:03:00 AM: Check receiver. Reboot complete, everything is happy.

10:06:00 AM: Listen to satellite-delivered program on car radio while driving home.

10:12:00 AM: RESULTS: Arrive home and thoroughly surprise Sharon, who expected my “quick trip” to take hours.

If it seems a little too easy, that’s because you’ve never done it. It’s not easy at all, and there are days when it’s nearly impossible—but it will always be impossible if you don’t try. I’m not parroting that “You can do this if you’ll just buckle down and try harder” thing linear people are so fond of bashing us with. If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me in my childhood, I would have squandered all that money long ago.

Here’s the thing: those linears are half right. You—and I—can do it. We just can’t do it their way.

Discover how you’re wired.

Find the way that works for you.

Then, meet me in The Elevator.

 

 

My Makeup Case

It’s not every day that I’m complimented on my makeup, and that’s probably a good thing. Over the past couple of days, I’ve received several such compliments however, and accepted them graciously.

Our church presented its annual musical Christmas drama this past weekend, and in honor of the event I pulled and old friend from the closet shelf—my makeup case. Last night as I made my way toward a reasonably well-lighted mirror, Ryan (one of our crack sound guys) said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man with such a honkin’ big makeup case.” I chuckled, picked up my wireless microphone, and walked away with a smile. He’d obviously never been around a bunch of theater geeks.

I suppose it is more makeup than most middle managers carry around on a typical weekend, even the ones who wear makeup regularly. By theater geek standards, though, it’s rather average. Picture a typical old-fashioned blue-collar lunch bucket, the kind with a thermos inside the top half. If that’s a single-wide, my makeup case would be a double-wide. It’s well-stocked, though not gratuitously. The only thing in there that I haven’t used at least once is a one-ounce bottle of white liquid face paint (Ben Nye ML-01) given to me by a well-intentioned lady at a costume shop, who said I could use it in a pinch if I failed to find the silver-grey hair color I needed. Fortunately, I’ve never had to test her theory.

My makeup case has spent a lot of time on that closet shelf. We’ve lived in this house eleven years, and before last Thursday it hadn’t left the spot where it was stowed after we moved. I almost took it down before last year’s Christmas drama, then decided the role didn’t require makeup in such a close setting. In retrospect, I should have used it last year, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

This year was different. The role was Paul the Apostle, in his old age while under house arrest in Rome (and yes, it did pertain to the Christmas story). My makeup case must have known that the role required its services, for it began calling my name ever so gently from the day I got the part. Last Thursday, I finally answered that call.

As I wrestled it from the high shelf, it seemed sad but anticipatory. The thick layer of dust made the black plastic look ugly and dirty, but gave way quickly to a dust rag, revealing what some would see as dirt but I saw as distinguished signs of experience—those perma-dirt makeup smudges on the top half. I snapped the latch, opened the top, and greeted my old co-conspirators in character creation. They responded by caressing my nose with that unique aroma that made me itch for the burn of stage lights on my retinas, wrapping around me like warm arms welcoming me home.

A quick inventory told me all was present and accounted for, though not everything had weathered the dormancy well. After the respectful interment of a rancid jar of Pond’s Cold Cream and an equally distasteful jar of curdled Eucerin, I retired a handful of disreputable sponges and a box of hyper-stale lemon drops, then took stock of what remained. The makeup had weathered the hiatus well, and in short order I had a brief shopping list in hand and set out to find a Ben Nye dealer in Little Rock.

It wasn’t until last night, after our third and final performance of A Night to Remember, a brand new Christmas drama written for us by Charlie Warren, that I fully grasped how much I missed my old friends in the makeup case. As I smeared cold cream on my head to dissolve my base of PC-17 “Light Egyptian” and inhaled that unique fragrance of Ben Nye Color Cake mixed with Pond’s Cold Cream, a little touch of sadness mixed in with the greasy sensation on my skin. I suddenly grasped how very much I missed the stage, bringing characters to life and connecting with an audience. It feeds me. It nourishes me in a way that only another artist can understand. It is a part of who God made me to be, a part that I have missed for far too long.

Now, I’m faced with a decision. Do I put the makeup case back on the closet shelf?

When I first moved to Little Rock eleven years ago, I was warned by a fellow theater junkie that I would find only three varieties of theater here: the “experimental, social-issues, slightly-left-of-Stalin” groups whose productions I would likely find offensive, the “in-bred, cliquish community theater” types who would welcome outsiders only when necessary, and the paid, professional, “send us your headshot and resume, and we’ll giggle because you aren’t really one of us” theaters. In retrospect, I can see that I made a serious mistake. I believed him.

Last night, as I removed my makeup and packed up my theatrical trappings, The Lord and I had a little chat about the theatrical world, and I came away with a new perspective. Perhaps the “slightly-left-of-Stalin” crowd needs a little balance. If they are true to their liberalism, they ought to respect my world view, and if I’m true to the teachings of Christ, I ought to love and respect them even if we disagree. And as for those “cliquish community theater groups,” I can look back and see that every community theater group I’ve been involved with has been cliquish. I proved myself as an actor, and was accepted into the clique. And those “professional” theaters may audition in New York, but they audition locally, too. If I really want to, I could get my foot in their door. I might not get the big, meaty roles, but they’ll respect my passion and talent. “You do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

SO, the makeup case sits across the room from me now, on a living room chair. No doubt, I’ll be made to move it before long. When that moment comes, I plan to put it somewhere obvious, a place where I’ll see it every day and hear it’s insistent call, reminding me to make connections and watch for auditions and be ready for our next joint adventure, wherever it may be.

Gimme Something New!

“There are no new ideas, just new presentations.”

I’ve heard that phrase a lot lately. I heard it several times at the writers conference I attended in May. I’ve read it in a couple of books about writing. I’ve heard it from people who I admire and respect, and who have far more impressive publishing credentials than mine. They are the authorities, the experts, the movers and shakers of the Christian publishing business – and they insist that there are no new ideas, just new ways of expressing the same old stuff.

 With all due respect, I must humbly respond: “BALONEY.”

I just can’t buy it. there must be some new ideas out here. How could it be possible that all the new ideas are gone? The more I contemplate the statement, the more arrogant it seems. To say that there are “no new ideas” is to say that the God of the Universe — the Creator of Creativity — has reached His creative limits and can no longer inspire us with truly new ideas. It’s like turning off the lights and blaming God because the room is dark. He didn’t turn out the lights, you did. “There are no new ideas” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you assume that there are no new ideas, you won’t be looking for new ideas. Even if one slaps you in the face you won’t see it.

Lord, please give me a truly new idea, not some recycled thought picked up from someone else. Create in me a new idea, oh God, and energize Your creative spirit within me. Amen, and Thank You.