Go / Weiqi / Baduk


So as an escape from the mundane (and a vent for stress), I started studying Go (a.k.a., Weiqi in Mandarin, Baduk in Korean). It’s the oldest board game we know of that is still played today, with boards and pieces dating from 2,000 years ago.

We call it Go because that’s what the Japanese call it, and they introduced it to the west.

If you are after a challenging, infinite game that has no luck to it, this is your game. It FAR easier to learn than chess — almost as easy as checkers — but the strategy is much deeper.

Only this last year did a computer finally manage to beat a top human player in Go. (They started beating Chess Grandmasters in the 70’s).  According to one article, there are more legal board positions in the game then there are atoms in the universe. This has made Go the holy grail of AI research, because if you can make an AI that can learn to master Go, it can — by definition — master anything easier than Go.

All hail our new AI overlords, AlphaGo and (soon) Zen. May they be kind and gracious tyrants. 😉

The Hallelujah! Booth

So… How am I increasing my productivity? Well, there are several techniques I’m using, but here’s a really simple one to implement…

The Hallelujah! Booth

I get this idea from Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the source of most commercial fiction/movies plot structure as we know it. His idea is that you  a “Sacred Space” and a “Sacred Time” will nurture your creativity.

This is the space you have that is dedicated to you and your creativity. You go here to create and to do. In my experience, this is perhaps the easiest way to start making time for your writing habit, and teaches your brain that there is a time of day to be creative. That said, you don’t HAVE to have one. Jay Lake, one of the most productive writers I ever met, wrote anywhere anytime.

But I do have one.

So what’s my sacred space/time? It’s a specific booth at Chick Fil A that I show up to before work. I put in a solid hour of writing, and sometimes, if i get there early, a little more. The weakness of this is that 1) Weekends as a whole are difficult, since I don’t go to work those days, and 2) Sundays are really hard, since Chick-Fil-A is closed. But I’m learning to work around that. Slowly.

Whether yours is midnight in your closet or mid-day in your car in the parking lot of an Office Max, defining a sacred space and time will get your habit rolling.

Robert Johnson, the Rock and Roll Faust

If you haven’t heard about the blues legend Robert Johnson — who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to master music, and who sang about walking with the devil, being chased by hell hounds, and making a deal with the devil at the crossroads, and who supposedly died at age 26 howling and barking like a mad dog at the moon — then you have now. To say his impact on rock and roll was astronomical would be to put it too weakly.


Robert Johnson has often been held up as one of the most amazing musicians ever by many rock and roll legends, however a lot of his songs sound very high-pitched, eerie, and can be offputting to new listeners. This is because they were recorded slightly too fast on the record machine, probably to cram more songs on the record and save money.

Well, now someone has at last gone in and slowed them back down again, and man, I like them better this way. I could listen to them all day. As an added bonus, you can now hear the influence of Son House on his singing, hear the emotion and humor in his voice, and his songs also feel like a natural extension of the Mississippi Delta Blues.

Listen to them here:


Looking without looking, seeing without seeing

When you look at a field, what do you see? Do you see “green” or “grass” or even just “field”? If so, you’re not really looking.

I am looking at one now, and I see at least five to ten different shades of green, at least 3 different shades of tan and brown, and everything bit of grass, living or dead, at a different length. Even grasses of the same species look unique. They clump together, run in strips or curves, and the leave huge open spaces. Fate and randomness has textured like the rind of an orange.

This field was once a building, a vast warehouse, and the foundation of it is still there underneath, and there are tiny bits of rubble just beyond sight. The bulldozers scraped the whole surface clean once, long ago, and so the field always looks like it has been plowed for crops where their teeth dragged and then overgrown even though it has never been plowed before.

But what really amazes me are the bushes. You don’t even see them when you look at this place at first — you look and you see “field” and that’s all, and all the bushes disappear from your eyes because you see a category, a shape, an abstract object instead of the thing itself. It is cruel and heartless dominance of the abstract over the real.

Really, it’s like Plato and Aristotle had it all backward, that the abstract, perfect world of “forms” is not a thing beyond or behind reality, but an instinctive creation of the mind, a simplification that the brain resorts to in order to be able to process all of the data and sort it and organize it in a useful way. The “shadows on the wall of a cave” are not the physical world at all, but the cognitive system of grouping, classification, and ordering that our mind uses to construct meaning.

Reality is always complex, textured, nuanced, with layers of history right there, visible under the surface, between the bushes and the blades of grass, but the mind cannot handle all of this information at once. It is too much. It is not useful, not relevant to survival or thriving, and it is discarded. And that is the way it should be. Usually. But sometimes you need to turn that filter off, and you need to see what is actually HERE.

Because sometimes the “perfect form” is not enough.

Because sometimes you need the truth, with all its various shades.

Because… sometimes… the world is beautiful.

What I am currently reading

"Writing the Breakout" Novel by Donald Maas.

Good info about the book premise, which I, personally, really needed.

Also reading:

Three of the 4 classics of Chinese literature:
-"Outlaws of the Marsh" (aka "The Water Margin") by Shi Nai’An
-"Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Luo Guanzhong
-"Journey to the West" (aka "Monkey") by Wu Cheng’en

"A Handbook of Chinese Mythology" by Deming An and Jessica Anderson Turner

"Chinese Mythology" by Claude Helft and Chen Jiang Hong

"Story Structure Architect" by Victoria Schmidt


All of John Brown’s fabulous posts on writing (especially plot-related)

All of Jim Butcher’s posts on writing (especially plot-related)
Dan Wells’s "7-point Plot System" lecture on YouTube

And I have read a vast amount on Wikipedia about the 8 Supernatural Races of Indian/Chinese Buddhist mythology, as well as huge swathes of material on the Mara and Hanuman/Sun Wukong

As you may be able to tell, this reading list is very focused on two different things: Plot and Chinese Mythology/Literature.

There’s a few reasons for this, and I’ll go into them later. 😉

A noticeable lack of writing that must be corrected

I have not been writing. Instead, I have been “researching” wuxia fiction and TV shows for the past several weeks — that’s my official excuse.

I’ve always wanted to write a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon style story — possibly a whole epic fantasy trilogy — and, for some reason, I decided to start researching it now.

That said, I still have not finished the Dark Sequel. Instead, I’ve been watching a Wuxia TV series. Bad me! I know! But now that series is done, and I have my life back — I believe it is time to start back on the Dark Sequel and knock the rough draft out of the way so I can start writing other stuff.

The Interconnectedness Of the 1970’s – Monty Python, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Timothy Leary

I’ve been reading quite a few books; in case you haven’t been reading my other posts, here are just a few:

The Life of Python
Michael Palin’s Diaries 1969-1979
A Liar’s Autobiography (Graham Chapman)
Timothy Leary: A Biography
John Lennon: The Life

What strikes me about Lennon (and the Beatles), Timothy Leary, and Monty Python is how they intertwine through the years, indeed how all the icons of the era — including the Rolling Stones and the WHO — all seemed to hang out together on a relatively constant basis.

Leary shows up in Chapman’s autobiography, and mentions of him meeting Eric Idle are present in Leary’s biography. The Beatles, especially George Harrison, became very close to the Pythons — GH funding five million pounds of “The Life of Brian” at extreme personal risk.

Per Chapman and Palin, Eric Idle starts to hang out with the Stones constantly and was very close to George Harrison, Chapman hangs out with the Who and helps train the fledgling Douglas Adams, Palin becomes very close with George Harrison as well and is friends with the whole world, and Pink Floyd helps fund “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

It’s like some vast, tangled web of interwoven causality, where the whole counter culture (especially in Britain) conspires to lift itself higher and higher, until the whole period is still iconic today.

It really does echo down, even to Gen-X icons. Johnny Depp and Wynona Rider were very close to Timothy Leary (Rider was his god-daughter), and Uma Thurman was the daughter of one of Leary’s ex-wives and a Buddhist monk that had interacted with Leary on several occasions.

An aristocracy was formed during this period, a clique of people and hedge-maze of relationships that helped create modern entertainment and came dominate the last quarter of the 20th century, especially many pop-culture icons.

Is there anything similar happening in the world in the present? It makes me wonder if this aristocracy continues, or if our isolative technological culture that make each person into an unassailable island fortress has turned even this network of entertainment cognoscenti into a group of lonely hermits.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Monty Python, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, and Depp, but I never realized exactly how tightly locked together all these gears were in the turn of the years.

Monty Python is the Meaning of Life

Well, I’ve done it. To improve the silly, Monty Python-esque, surrealism-inspired book I am currently writing (in truth, I’m currently writing two books simultaneously, and only one of them is silly) — I’ve determined that I need to come to a greater understanding of stand-up, skit, and other forms of comedy. Essentially, I need to rapidly, efficiently develop a high level of expertise in something I’ve never done. Yay! MORE impossible goals!

So, how do you graduate from being just a snarky writer and entertaining guy/gal in a crowd to a full humorist? No idea! But here’s my current strategy:

1) Read books by and on Monty Python:
– The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All the Words (Vol 1 and Vol 2) (reading one episode a night and acting out key scenes to practice movement, elocution, and emotion)
– Michael Palin’s Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years (the full 700 page book, not the abridged audio (which is also good) for an inside perspective of Python in it’s heyday and the personalities involved)
Monty Python Speaks (for the opinions of the other members)
– Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography (I only have the abridged audio read by Chapman, I’d love a hard copy so I can get past the abridgements but they are rare and expensive! I re-listen to this regularly to try and get that madness back in my words)

The goal of this research is to be able to build a sort of mental armature or model of each member of Monty Python as they were back in the old days, to try and estimate how each of the six members might think. Not sure if this will prove to be of any value, but I’m hoping it will give an extra perspective and polish to my work. As a note, I am finding Terry Gilliam to be a particularly fascinating individual, and John Cleese is a strange type of hyper-analytic genius.

Note: I would really like to read The Pythons: Autobiography, the classic Monty Python’s Big Red Book (which is blue, of course), and Brand New Monty Python Bok, but I haven’t been able to find them for a reasonable price — and I’ve spent so much money already, it’s really hard for me to justify it.

2) Read books on Comedy:
The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter (very interesting insights to modern joke and sitcom structure)
The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus (Vorhaus wrote “Married With Children”, but I can forgive him, there are some great brainstorming techniques in here, but his plot advice is pretty rudimentary)
Step by Step to Stand Up Comedy by Greg Dean (not very far into this one, but it gives you a lot of information about the classic punchline that is missing from the Comedy Bible, as CB focuses on “Act-Outs” and performance.)
– Signed up for Dean Lewis’s Comedy Workshop, where I will have a last performance at the Dallas Improv. (I sat in on one of his Level 2 classes, and everyone was HILARIOUS; if there is any hope for me to really learn this, this may be it)

The goal of this is to learn performance and modern joke structure, to give me more insights into the old Monty Python mindset. This is far outside my normal limns and safety zones, a dramatic shift for myself personally, and the stage work especially is a stretch for me — and fills me with a terror of a uniquely gut-clawing and nauseous breed. A bit like gas, really. Or a chestburster.

3) Listen to Watch Comedy
– Eddie Izzard’s Dressed to Kill (he is the heir apparent to Python’s style, and it’s amazing how effortlessly it all comes together; especially trying to work out when and how he does his faces and changes in intonation)
– Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy (some obvious influence on Izzard, love his body mechanics)
– Steven Wright I Have a Pony (great surrealism, but I crack up when I try to be that stonefaced)
– Comedy Central Presents and Comedy Central Death Ray, whatever other stand up I can get used/cheap
– I’d say Flying Circus and all the movies (Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Meaning of Life), but I’ve seen them so much they’re almost memorized.
Beyond the Fringe (A strong influence on Monty Python, where Dudley Moore got his start; really kicked off the wave of satire that Python later rode)
Do Not Adjust Your Set (Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle) and At Last the 1948 Show (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle) (both series are Monty Python pre-cursors)
I’m Sorry I’ll Read that Again (John Cleese and Graham Chapman radio show, another precursor)
– The Compleat History of Britain (Palin and Jones) (another precursor that I’ve only found on youtube)
The Goon Show — Spike Miligan, Harry Seacombe, and Peter Sellers (a strong influence on the 5 British Monty Python members when they were kids)
Fawlty Towers

The goal of this is to identify what I like best and to analyze it, to see what is being done. For instance, how to Martin and Izzard fill time when they’ve forgotten what’s next? What do you do if a joke fails? How do you make the audience accept surreality in their humor? And HOW IN GOD’S NAME does Martin walk around on his toes with his knees bent without falling down?

4) Constant Practice
– Carry notebook to jot down ideas constantly
– Carry Digital Voice Recorder to record act-outs and ideas and test runs of jokes and anything that gets a snicker during the day
– Do brain storming exercises every day (this also helps with serious writing)
– Somehow learn to have no shame on stage, practice Act-Outs as part of every day stuff, but only if appropriate
– KEEP WRITING BOTH OF MY NOVELS (this has been difficult and slow since I broke my thumb (hey, did I mention that my right hand is in a cast? typing now requires gymnastic effort), but it is critical; this is all about making me a better writer.)

This is the part where the rubber meets the road, practice, reciting jokes aloud, opening up myself and uncoiling the stresses that keep me mousy and quiet during the crushing banality of ordinary life. I don’t LIKE being quiet and mousy, and I’m NOT, not with my friends or on my own time. While I obviously find this freeing — downright revolution-inspiring — there’s one part I don’t like a about it: Comedy is built on negativity in an almost universal manner. Comedians talk about what scares them, annoys them, upsets them, weirds them out — jokes about things they like usually flop for the same reason long periods of happiness with no conflict flop in fiction… Conflict is central.

In fact, what I’m finding out is that the elements of comedy — even stand-up jokes — have a lot in common with fiction writing. Minimalist verbiage, good hooks in the setup, universal themes, punchy pacing, the importance of being unexpected. My hope is that my expertise in one area will transfer easily to the other.

Special thanks to my writing friends (Jonathan Wood (author of No Hero), Michelle Muenzler, William Ledbetter) and to my wife for supporting me on this crazy project. Especially to my wife; she has to put up with most of it.