Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stories Reveal the Truth Without Meaning To

In sixth grade I was riding the school bus home, and I turned to a boy and told him that no one in the world could hold their breath longer than four minutes. He did not believe me. He proceeded to “show me” I was wrong. I waited until I felt it had been long enough and then told him, “You’re breathing.” He asked, “How did you know?”

I knew because I was certain of my “fact.” But arguing that I knew what I was talking about would not convince him, so I told him I could see his nostrils moving.

This is typical of children. I once asked my mother how she knew I was lying all of the time. I truly remember not understanding how she could possibly know that there wasn’t a mermaid in our pool. There was no way to prove there wasn’t; she hadn’t looked. It alarmed me.

I believe that most humans, at some time in their life, trust that, “If you don’t have evidence, you can’t possibly know I’m lying.”

This is an important concept in the literary world for authors to understand: People can recognize lies.

Humans often have similar motivations. People can learn from experiences. Plus, American communication is based off of manipulation. Thus, it can be assumed that the listener can know what a speaker truly means despite the speaker doing his best to hide it.

What this means in the literary sense is this: Joe writes a story that is based on an ideal version of himself—a superhero who saves the world, gets the girl, and everyone loves. He names the character Kabookie, and gives him blonde hair instead of Joe’s red. Yet when Jill reads it, she can “tell” that it’s secretly supposed to be Joe.

Jill doesn’t have to be told. She may not even talk to Joe about it, believing that he’ll just deny it. She is content in her knowledge and Joe believes that he has been convincing in his lie.

Jill “knows” because of the subtleties: the way he describes the character—“handsome,” “rugged”—the idea that he favors this character over every other—he’s always right and they’re always wrong. But most importantly, if Jill wrote a story, it would probably be about herself.

Now some may argue that people assume every writer always writes about themselves. Even if the character truly is not supposed to be Joe, Jill will still think it is. And I have seen that. But this concept lingers in more contexts than just this one.

A man once made a poster for a production in my school. I took one look at it and I said, “He traced a photo on Photoshop.” My friends didn’t believe me—they didn’t believe I could possibly know that—but when I asked him the artist laughed and admitted it.

How did I know? Because I’ve done it.

Again, I had no proof other than my experienced recognition, and if asked, I could not prove it if the artist hadn’t admitted to it.

It can also be seen in little things. A student wrote a story in which he called a ‘door’ a ‘portal,’ and I knew he had needed a synonym for door and used Word’s thesaurus. (Back with an older version of Word, the only synonym for ‘door’ it had was ‘portal’ or ‘doorway,’ but they’ve since fixed that.)

People can tell a writer’s opinion on a subject without the author intending for it. They not only can recognize tricks of the trade, but emotions, (such as being in love with a character) or moral views, (Christian writers who write science fiction or fantasy, such as Stephanie Meyer, are often criticized of inputting their religion into their work).

The point is this: People often know what an author is doing, even if he doesn’t explicitly say it. What does this mean for the writing? Nothing if you’re not trying to lie.

We often do write about ourselves, fall in love with a character, pretend we know more about a subject than we actually do, and do other typical things that, well, makes a story sound like a self-petting fantasy more than a reality to convince others of. Often times it is important to hide what one is really trying to do because otherwise the reader might recognize it, and if she recognizes it, then she is very much likely to put the author inside of her peer group, which, considering the amount of self-loathing Americans tend to feel, is not a good place to be. Our worst criticism is towards things we see in ourselves.

To get to the gist, it is important to realize that truth gets through to the reader without our intending. An author must make a greater effort to lie and cover up his motivations.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

5 Ways to Subconsciously Improve Writing

Motivation isn’t just about getting yourself to get out of bed. A complex web of desire, cost, reward, and probability factors into every action we make. Writers and actors talk about how every character “wants” something, if it’s even just a glass of water, but it goes deeper than that.

Bad acting in the theatre is often hard to hear and not just due to poor volume and articulation. It’s because the majority of understanding is taken from tone and body language. When lying, pretending, or attempting to hide a motivation, a person still gives many tells as to their true meaning. A thespian may be crying on stage, but if she’s trying to show off her talent, it’s going to read like she’s trying to show off her talent. If her cadence and intention is wrong, the audience’s comprehension goes out the door.

Now, before I go on, I must emphasis what I am about to say here are not absolute rules that everyone should always follow if they ever want to be great. These aren’t even suggestions; they’re exercises. It’s an interesting way to learn about a writer’s “subconscious,” which, despite even the most vigorous of planners attempts, will affect work in many ways. Thinking about these things can change standard, good writing, to unique, good writing.

The best way to get better at the arts is to change the mindset, or the way the creator looks at things. Altering the way one views his story gives him a new perspective and highlights those pesky times in which his motivation makes it obvious “that this is fiction.”

Which brings us to…

1. Pretending it’s not fiction

When a reader scans a book, he can tell, without the cover or summary, the genre. If it’s nonfiction, if it’s a sequel, if it’s a positive story or tension-filled. We make choices every step of the way that give away our genuine intentions, so it’s not uncommon that amateur writing comes from the writer being too honest.

Knowing it’s pretend makes the author write like it’s pretend.

The style changes are subtle, so subtle that it’s hard to make the conscious choice to change the aspects of a “fiction story” by just pinpointing the exact moments and fixing them. Instead, if the writer truly believes what he’s saying, even only temporary, he’s more likely to sound like he’s telling the truth rather than making it up.

When “cutting” a work, thinking of the characters as real people who hold a million experiences helps clarify what’s actually a part of the story.

If real-life Jenna’s bragging to her friends how she threw soup at her date, she’s not going to start from bell-ring to when she went to sleep at night. She might, but even the most monotonous of people will have to cut out some events from the two hour dinner. Otherwise, the story would take two hours.

Every time someone relates something that happened to them, they edit the story to get the most laughs. She cuts out the parts that don’t matter—the listener only cares what he’s wearing when they find it was a 100 dollar suit that she threw tomato soup down—and she naturally give the details that either foreshadow events, up the stakes, or prove her point. We are innate story tellers, until we start thinking like we’re telling a story.

It’s the best way to help decide if an author wants to cut something or not. In fiction, everything written happened and so it’s a part of the story. In nonfiction a lot more happened, and none of its part of the story.

2. Know Who’s Telling the Story

If someone walked up to her friend and started some gossip, she would not say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” She’d probably start, “Guess what I just heard?”

There’s the tendency to try to write “neutral.” A lot of authors want to lay out the world for their readers and let them decide what to think about things. How it usually ends up is what I call, “Learning to Read” language:

“He walked into the small, white room and sat down on a chair. His hair was black, his suit brown, his eyes blue.”

The more complicated words used, the more opinionated they are.

“He sauntered into the cramped, bleached out room and slid into a chair. His hair a shiny black, his rich suit a deep brown, his focused eyes matching the sea.

He appears more slick in the second one, and maybe, from the description of the room, pompous. The “narrator” has an opinion on the man and the location. Depending on whether or not the reader views the “cramped” description as the man’s point of view or a story teller, it nevertheless has a connotation to it. The first gives a visual with no conflict. The second starts to hint at the problems.

Knowing who is telling the story adds another dimension to it. It helps with voice and style, gives it an atmosphere, and, most importantly, adds to a character’s well-roundedness.

A story is being told. We like to think that, for a time, the reader has dropped down into the world and is visiting it to soon leave. But, as we don’t know who that reader is, that’s a hard idea to truly create.

This is not a suggestion to add a narrator in the sense that it should be told from first person. Deciding who is telling the story and why merely gives the author a little more play room.

A nondescript person just talking forces the events to hold up their weight. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in some cases, what one wants. But, if it’s not the specific goal, having an opinionated person really can help the story.

For one, it adds conflict without conflict being necessary in the scene. Making the narrator hate the main character allows for more calm moments. With descriptions like, “Then the idiot signed the check,” a nonchalant business transaction can suddenly be funny.

As for atmosphere, imaging that the story is being told around a fire by an old man to a group of young children can naturally change word choice into being more mystical. Picturing the scene causes the author to instinctively play along.

If you hate the way your stories turn out, or they’re just way different than pictured, it’s probably the atmosphere that’s bothering you. Knowing who’s opinion the description is based on can tell a lot about the problem—If it’s supposed to be mystical and it’s cold, pretending that a prophet is telling the story makes it read less like a fiction novel and more like a world.

3. Know the “Theme”

Theme being more like the way one decorates a room than the “moral” specifically. Every story has a motive. The author is always looking for agreement with something. This is a fact, and it is important. When the audience doesn’t know what the author is trying to say, they don’t understand “the point.”

What the author is getting at could be as simple as, “Isn’t he flippin’ awesome?” When the reader understands that, she’s happy. It could be as deep as, “The problem of the rebellion in Africa is destroying people’s lives. Don’t you think people should be aware?” Either way, the “theme” is still there.

Knowing the “confirmation” tightens up plot. It prevents diverging onto different subjects. If the point is, “He’s flippin’ awesome,” then it shouldn’t talk for twenty pages about the servant’s love-strife, unless the bad ass comes in and solves it all. Or did the servant’s wife and caused the problem.

But, more importantly, knowing the story’s point enables easier decision making.

I say theme in the decorative sense because when one is designing a room, she has a “key” to go back to. She knows everything needs to be blue or white or silver, and things with all three are even better.

When an author has a scene that ends in a bang but starts out calmly, he may have a problem of “keeping the calm” long enough to for the ending to mean anything. Now he needs to know what kind of information he can add to still make the scene important besides just the “Pop.” Or perhaps he can’t decide whether or not to delete a part. Or he can’t decide how to raise the stakes. Or he needs a Magoffin to hide something that will be important later.

When he knows the point of the story, making decisions like this becomes easier. You’re writing Twilight and you want a scene to show how Edward is secretly into Bella, but he’s trying to hide it. So they’re talking about nothing. If the “theme” of Twilight was even the most typical of people can lead extraordinary lives—I know it isn’t, but just bear with me—then their small talk might be oriented around her plans for the future, and how she’s already settled for being a waitress.

Having a core essence to go back to can really help make decisions easier and crisp up the narrative.

4. Write for Someone Specific

This one is simple. The author is writing a romance novel, but she wants the male lead to be likeable for men. Her response is likely to be to write for the “hypothetical guy.”

This is a mistake. We as Americans view the average hypothetical person as dumber, meaner, and more boring than the average person we know. We dehumanize imaginary beings, give them no personality other than vague stereotypes, and, essentially, look down on them. If you picture a “dumb blonde” in your head, you have a very distinct idea of how that person is. Now, if you think of someone that you know who is blonde and you think is dumb, they’re not a dumb blonde. It’s not the same visual.

When a writer wants to be interesting, the best bet is to write for himself. We’re not all as unique as we’d like to pretend to be, so if he managed to create the perfect book for himself, then there’s someone else out there who will really like it.

However, this, of course, is not always what we want. Sometimes we’re aiming towards those who are not in our demographic. Stephanie Meyer was not aiming towards the vampire crowd, nor was she a part of it. And, if she had been, she probably would have been sorely disappointed. On the whole, vampire lovers are more likely to hate the book than those who hadn’t been interested pre-Twilight.

When writing for a child or another gender, or a character in a demographic for that demographic to like, pick someone. Imaging how my brother would like a character gives me much more of a direction than picturing how “a man” would like the character. It also doesn’t let me off as easy.

To see what I mean by letting off easy, try this: Next time you’re debating whether or not a work is good, first picture how a hypothetical crowd would like it then picture how the greatest cynic that you know would. When dealing with the vague, we tend to put wishful thinking on the unknown. The crowd might like it, but you know exactly the parts the cynic is going to hate. Always go with the more concrete.

5. Base around Reality

Two characters must break into a prison to save their friend. The author comes up with a plan. The plan works, because they essentially “luck out” seeing how they have a preverbal god hanging over their shoulder. If this was reality, would the author really believe that just donning a prison guard’s outfit and walking into Alcatraz be that simple? Trying to pass the story off as nonfiction puts pressure on the author to make it reasonable that two peasants could storm a castle. He can’t lean on the idea that, “Well, it’s a different world, so it was easier back then.” He comes up with something more creative that makes the audience admire the characters even more—They did it without “divine” intervention of just dumb luck.

Even in the most fantastic worlds, having an anchor on a historical or personal aspect can add immensely to it. Picturing people as real people and places as real locations adds details that give the story concreteness.

When having a hard time writing a portion of a story or reading a part of a work that isn’t right, the author can look to something real to add another dimension to it.

Perhaps the reason why the Military War Room Scene is so ridiculous is it’s not defined enough. Going to a real military base (which can be difficult without actually enrolling), or even a hospital or some bureaucratic station grants senses and details the writer wouldn’t have thought about before. Knowing how a man in uniform makes you feel, knowing how a place smells, seeing the height of the ceilings and the state of their inboxes gives a great deal of atmosphere that someone who’s never experienced it before may not realize.

Taking something vague and giving it the “Method Acting” touch can help an author who wants to fix his atmosphere.



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Monday, September 12, 2011

Introduction to Specific Writing Techniques

I have three sayings when it comes to approaching editing advice, all cliché: “If your car is running without gas, don’t stop to fill it up,” “everything in moderation,” and finally, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

These all essentially have the same meaning to me. Do what works when it works, change what doesn’t when it doesn’t. When reading any sort of how-to book or writing article, I find the advice as generally similar and without the benefit of context. Of course, it can’t take into account the variation of writers and styles, specific mistakes and personal priorities. It does, however, surprise me how I can sit and spend hours Stumbling across a good number of articles on writing advice and yet, I’ll only come across something novel or even specific once every blue moon.

The worst part is not that it’s repetitive. I like getting things I haven’t heard before, but I can’t blame any of us—partially because I too am a perpetrator of it—for repeating timeless truths. It’s the idea that other than the fabled Writer’s Block, the advice is pretty vague, “Improve your writing all around,” stuff.

In Stephen King’s On Writing, an fascinating book more about memoirs than writing tips, he spends about 1/3 of the 300 page text talking about his suggestions for a becoming author.

What were they?

Don’t use passive verbs and don’t use adverbs.

Write interesting characters.

Write good dialogue.

Schedule your writing time.

Sound familiar? They may not, depending on how much you actually sit down and try to get pissed off by Absolute Do’s—But I think that may be just me. If you’re reading this, however, I must assume that you came across it because you’re interested in this sort of topic, and so odds are that you’ve seen a few of these before. If you haven’t, don’t worry, you will.

Now was that advice as simple as “Write good characters?” or am I taking it out of context? Well, read it for yourself, but I felt the majority of the chapter was more spent on him showing examples of bad characters then specifically telling someone how to make a good one.

Which brings me back to the “vague” factor. Most writing advice is very similar to this. Number one on the list for how to get better at writing is “Write.” They will then proceed to tell you things like write in the morning because that is your best time, have a time or page count goal, some, like as in On Writing will tell you not to do something, like use adverbs or the word “said.” Others will tell you to always use the word “said,” and nothing else. They might even beg you to do it, saying, “Oh, please, don’t do this. Please.” That drives me up the wall.

If I’m complying with your advice, I’m not doing it as a favor to you. Shut up.

My problem is this: Where is all the advice for specific problems?

My stories don’t have interesting plots (a real thing I personally struggle with to varying extents). What do I do?

It didn’t come out the way I imagined it. How do I fix it?

I keep writing 10 pages of a story and never finish it. What is my problem?

The last one you actually will probably be able to find advice for. The other two, not so much.

There will be people who approach the topic, but they often do it in indirect ways, going off on tangents about what is bad versus what is right. There is this wonderful article, Why Story Structure Formulas Don’t Work in which a screenwriting professor at UCLA talks about how a woman had trouble with plots and attempted to use a formula, which, as the title suggests, didn’t work.

I read through all three parts of this story, and he kept promising to offer help, help that he didn’t really get to.

As I’m sitting there, trying to find exercises, ideas, or advice to help with my weaknesses, and I’m thinking, why can’t I find anything specific anymore? I realize that all mistakes are contextual within the work, and that they vary from piece to piece, but I think it’s more likely that people struggle with making good characters and interesting plots than how much they lean on a badly placed adverb.

(See what I did there?)

So over the course of the next few weeks I will be posting articles on how to work on specific aspects of writing, relaying techniques, exercises, and ideas that I’ve heard over the last 10 years I’ve been sucked into this business. Some of them I’ve tried, some I laugh at, others I use, and even some I’ve developed (I’ll try to warn you which one those are). They will orient around a concept based on Aristotle’s five principles of drama for a reader to pick and chose what he would like to get better on.

Plot
Character
Idea/Thought/Theme
Language
Atmosphere

Because I’m using them for writing instead of the stage, I use atmosphere to describe Aristotle’s original “spectacle.” For that same reason, I’ve also removed the sixth principle, “song” because that is just a part of language in text form.

Each week I will list rules, techniques, exercises, and ideas, popular or not, related to getting better in each of these aspects.

On that note, please let me reiterate:

“If the car’s running without gas, don’t bother to fill it up.”

If you can write characters without understanding what his favorite color is, then don’t waste your time filling out 50 page character sheets.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

If you’re story’s good, it probably won’t be better without adverbs. If your description is terrible, then, yeah, maybe get rid of it.

And finally:

“Everything in moderation.”

Short sentences are great when most of them are long. Long sentences are fantastic when most are short. Style aspects only become negatives when they are used too much.

As a final note and most important note:

A lot of writing advice sounds like an absolute rule: “Never ever use ‘very.’” In fact, many people say, “Learn the rules then learn to break them.” My philosophy lies in these three clichés, indicating, “Learn the mistake then learn how to fix it.” With that in mind, please use my articles sparsely. Following every suggestion I am about to make will lead to a huge waste of time in which one could spend writing.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Seeing Scams

After my boyfriend graduated college, he entered into the “real world,” where he found, low and behold, he was overwhelmed.

An aspiring actor, he went into it head first, looking for acting jobs and normal jobs alike, not sure how to start off in either category, but following different paths. There he found something that has disheartened him ever since: Scams.

Scams are a bit thing in the art world. People pray on the willowy hopes of the young and naïve, attempting to dig money out of their already broke hands by suggesting they have a path.

The problem with the art world is that there’s no clear cut way to get in. We have ideas about getting agents, winning an important contest, knowing someone, etc., but even all those goals don’t have crisp starting points. In order to get an agent you need to be published, but in order to be published you need an agent, how do you not only figure out how to submit to a contest, but find out about it at all, and so on and so forth.

Scammers recognize this needy confusion and they pray on it. Thousands of potential artists find themselves out of money without anything to show for it.

The question becomes how do you separate scams from opportunities?

The good news is that once you know the basic rules, most scams are pretty obvious. A good number of con men are lazy, and they tend to get business despite being not so clever. The number one rule of thumb in detecting scams is that the artist SHOULD NOT PAY BEFORE WORK IS DONE.

If the agent asks for some sort of fee, as in “reading fee” or “monthly fee,” it is very much most likely a scam. Many actors hand over thousands of dollars to their “agent” to find that he is gone the next week.

A seemingly common belief, one that I have never understood, is that the author has to pay to get his book published. This is not the case. The book is the product that the author is paid for. The publisher takes the “prototype” (i.e. the manuscript) and produces it, markets it, and ships it. He then proceeds to divide up the profit accordingly. The book is the big idea. It is the design, the concept, the invention. The publishers make money off of it and then pays the creator.

Real agents, publishers, and galleries will be paid by royalties, i.e. the money that is made off of the work. If it doesn’t make any money then they don’t get paid, otherwise, a good number of them would just accept everyone because they’re making money either way.

Technically, the author never pays these people at all. They get a share of the income.

There are, of course, little exceptions to these rules.

Self-publishing is not a scam. It is, very obviously, self-publishing. Like I stated above, the publisher’s job is to produce, market, and ship. When deciding to use a self-publishing site, the author is “hiring” a factory to mass create the script in question. He then is own publisher and does the rest of the labor.

However:

He RECEIVES the product. In self-publishing, he is having his book created, which means, when all is said and done after he forks over the 2,000 dollars he should have about 200 books sent to him. There are scams that claim to be self-publishing and they’re actually not. If you do not receive tangible merchandise, then you should not be paying them.

Take iUniverse, for example.

They advertise on the internet with Google’s 1984 help of knowing their victims. They claim to be a self-publishing site that also helps with the other production aspects. It is, however, a complete scam.

Number one: It’s print-on-demand.

Print-on-demand, just for clarification, is when a publisher only actually creates the books when someone orders them. This is cheaper and less risk for the publisher, but also makes marketing harder. A lot of people buy books on impulse because they see it in a store and it has a nice cover, which means that unless someone is specifically looking for your book or a good read and happens across the website, it’s less likely to sell.

With iUniverse, they’re asking payment for their “services.” Not only that, but then they are proceeding to ask for royalties, meaning they’re getting paid before and after the sale.

This specific publishing company is a mixture of a vanity press and self-publishing with the worst sides of both. A vanity press is a publisher that accepts a lot of books and does not take quality into account. These, of course, are hard to sell, not only because they’re not well edited or that no one is trying to sell them, but also because they tend to be more expensive than an average book to make up for the cost of the failures. Stores like Barnes and Nobles won’t even look at them.

Ebooks are becoming more and more popular today. I am not entirely sure of that process, especially when it comes to independent works. But, I still say the rule of thumb applies: Don’t spend money unless you’re getting something concrete back.

When looking at self-publishing options, remember that the price should be less than the price of a similar product in a store. A fifteen dollar hardcover made by Haper Lee has to pay off the author, the printer, the editor, the cover designer, the agent, the publisher, and a large group of people. You’re only paying off the printer. You should be able to sell your book for regular price and make a profit. If you’d have to sell it for more to break even, then you’re being ripped off.

And, of course, paying someone to edit your work is also legitimate. You are hiring them for a specific one time service.

The best way to protect yourself from scams is to view the art world as a business. You have the product, they have the means of production or advertising. Are they hiring you or are you hiring them? Interviewers do not charge the people they’re interviewing for a job, no matter how much a pain in the ass it is. View your art as merchandise and that should clear up exactly what you should be paying for.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

If Math was Taught Like Art

The class is algebra. The students are divided into two groups. There are those who aspire to be mathematicians and those who took it because it seemed fun.

The professor will walk in. He will be a man who wanted to teach and is, or he will be a guy who wanted to do math and isn't. One will be an excellent teacher who knows nothing or an excellent mathematician who can't teach.

He will strut to front of the class and tell them what mistakes they are going to make on their assignments. This announcement can range from extremely accurate, "You will forget to carry the one," to very arbitrary, "You should never use a pen." The more arbitrary, the more the students will proceed to hear about for the rest of the course. “She wasn’t wrong for trying to use a completely different equation, but that she did it in ink.” In a different class (if she ever does try to take algebra again) the teacher will tell her that it is important she does the opposite. "Use a pen. I want to see when you did something wrong."

The lessons will be based around previous teaching methods. Exercises, lecturing, techniques, and homework will be identical to the professor’s styles. The work will not be based around how the teacher himself actually does math, but how a person who is bad at math should do it. He will often say, “The professionals never use this technique, but you need to learn the rules before you break them.”

The techniques will have great benefits, but only in certain circumstances. Due to overexposure and irrational force, the students will brace against the "absolute" lesson and never use it. When Susie is bad at multiplication, using paper clips as a visual suddenly makes it clear. When Jimmy is slowed down by having to use paper clips for every problem, he decides the teacher doesn't know what he's talking about.

That belief will be furthered when the teacher continues the busy work taught to him. Games and exercises meant to make the situation more fun will be played without thought as to actually how it will help the students now. The procedures have merit, we can directly understand how they intend to benefit us, but they are often taught more because they’re easy for the teacher to occupy attention with than that they're useful.

On the homework itself, the teacher will hand it back with the solutions written on it. He may go so far as to find where the equation turned sour and say, “This should be this.” She makes the changes, but won't be able to do it herself the next problem. If the student’s lucky, the teacher will try to not just hand her the answer, he will try to lead her there. But even in that case, more often than not, she will spend her time trying to figure out what he wants as he asks her, “What did you do here?” rather than trying to figure out to fix the mistake.

And, of course, the teacher has no answer key, so he’s sitting there trying to solve the equations in his head as he helps her. He realizes that if she catches him not knowing the answer, she may dismiss him as an expert, so he must pretend to know exactly what he’s doing as he goes.

The main way he attempts to grade homework is by giving it to the other students. He believes this will demonstrate their mistakes if they can see it in others. They will get together in a group and talk about what everyone did wrong, but, of course, most of them have no idea.

The people who are there who want to do math for the rest of their lives are too busy trying to prove they should be there and they do know what they’re doing to really look attempt for problem solving, on their own or others. Like the professor, they don’t want to be caught in a mistake.

The students who came in for fun want it to be fun and don’t want to have hostility. They will stick to the safe route of what the teacher told them, so they’ll often just repeat back what he’s said a million times: “Is that a pen?”

The organization structure of the class causes minimum teaching efficiency. Because algebra is the math class that non-majors and majors have to take, the students find themselves with varying levels of interest and knowledge.

More often than not, it can be the only math class offered. In freelance classes outside of the university, such as an opportunity at a library or a paid tutor or an independent class offered at a community college, the student finds herself retaking the same algebra class over and over again, despite having gone to many different places.

Because it has this mix, the class becomes geared towards the common denominator. It teaches the basics (addition) for the entirety of the course. For those who are trying to get better at math, this proves frustrating. Those who wanted to have fun, didn't, and they flee.

Because of this constant repeating of "beginner courses," class searches become less about the subject matter and more about the quality of the teacher.

The best math teachers are the ones who care. If they are more interested in math itself more than teaching, no matter if they are great at it or not, they are more likely to end up hurting their protégés in the end.

A bitter teacher can ruin a student. He will tell her that she will never use math in the future. He will tell her that she will not get anywhere with it. He may even “lovingly” inform her that she is so terrible at it that she should go into another field. He is, of course, telling her this for her own good. So she "doesn't waste her time."

If a student is younger than average, some people may go as far to say, “You shouldn’t try to do algebra yet. Wait until you’re older.”

The outside world does not consider the best mathematicians the ones who went to school for it. Having a degree in mathematics doesn’t mean the student is any better than the man who’s been practicing since he was three. There is a reason why most aspiring mathematicians don’t bother going to school.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

10 Ways to be Taken More Seriously

Everyone is a writer. Furthermore, everyone knows that everyone is a writer. Therefore, when you tell someone that that’s what you do, the expression is always the same: polite, apathetic, and to a certain extent, a little judgmental.

The problem exists that even though most people consider themselves a creative sort, very few people actually do it, and even fewer do it well. So when someone says he writes, people lob him along with every other wannabe in the world.

Getting the career choice to be taken seriously is hard. People see the artist as a lazy person with an ego and a get-rich-quick scheme. Whether you are a painter, a musician, a writer, or an actor, unless you have a resume that drops down to the floor and spirals across the room, they don’t take you seriously. The problem with this is, of course, you’re not actually considered for projects, the work you do create is judged more harshly, your proposals to other people in your field are immediately thrown out, and, last, "you don’t know what you’re talking about," no matter how good or experienced you actually are.

Here are ten important ways for amateurs to start being considered “a serious artist.”

1) All Projects are Important

We’ve been taught by the educational system to weigh the amount of work with the amount of reward. An assignment based on participation points will have less effort than one graded for actual quality. A good number of students put in the minimal exertion for the highest reward. A great way to prioritize, but not in your field.

Artists build their own reputations. Every piece of work that someone creates for another, whether paid or not, “important “ or not, should be up to his own standards. He should be proud of it. It doesn’t matter if he’s writing a script for Stephen Spielberg, a community theatre, or his friend Tiffany’s Youtube video, he should always try to make it good. And, even more importantly, he has to finish what he started.

Many people are victim to this mentality.

Tiffany wants Roger to write a web show for her. He agrees. He procrastinates—it’s not that important, there’s no deadline, and she’s probably not going to even go through with it. Tiffany will probably never be a great director, so Roger has nothing to worry about. Except—

Tiffany bitches to everyone how unreliable he is, the students are convinced, and the teachers hear about it and become convinced too. If he’s done this more than once, even two times, it becomes solidified.

Every time he applies to put on a production in the school, he gets denied. They know he won’t follow through with it.

One day someone calls the college for a reference. The teachers admit that he’s flaky.

He doesn’t get into the graduate school.

A ridiculous story? Well, it’s a true one. I know hundreds of stories like these all about people in different fields, ruining many different things.

An artist has the right to say no to any project for any reason. If he believes it’s going to be bad, or not good for his reputation, that’s perfectly acceptable for him to say no. The issue is that once he says yes, his reputation is now on the line. When he starts picking and choosing what is important, people read into that as another artist who only cares about becoming rich and famous. He can’t do what is “beneath” him. He doesn’t take pride in his work, which means he doesn’t like his work, which means he’s only in it for superficial reasons.

Even if an author thinks he knows just how much pull a project has, he can never be certain. People talk, reputation grows. Habits start to form. Every time someone screws over a work because it doesn’t matter, he makes it okay to do it the next time. Each time he half asses his project, the more his reputation grows, and he risks screwing himself over in the long run.. You never know who is going to have influence over whom.

If you want to be considered a writer over the pack of people who also consider themselves as such, you have to develop a better reputation than them. No one starts with the good jobs, we all have to shovel through slop to get there. It’s the people who have constant quality pieces that are have a reputation for getting it done that get the good jobs.

2) Get a professional email address

A professional email can do wonders for someone. When sending out scripts, short stories, or novels, handing out business cards, or asking for a reference, a “serious” email indicates someone who has been doing this for a long time. Cutielover26 just doesn’t seem to have quite the ring to it as johnsmith. Unique, personalized emails indicate youth. They are generally something that you got when you were 13 and never changed, which means you’re probably still in your twenties. There are arguments over this, but I believe strongly in the factors of ageism, and most people won’t take you seriously if they think you're immature.

For this reason, your college email, if you have one, isn’t the best option either. It may cause for belief that you are a professor, but they’ll probably realize you are a student, and either way, you want to be viewed as a professional writer.

Have your name in it. This is a great way to start ingraining it into people’s memories. The more you use your name, the more they’re likely to remember it. Even if you’re never going to see these people again, it’s always best to start the subliminal advertising.

Gmail is one of the better ones to have, just for the reason that their emails don’t get eaten as spam as often. They’re more reliable. Things like nouns and numbers in the title also start the risk of your address being labeled as spam, so keep it as simple as possible.

3) Get a website

This is hard, but important. One of the best ways for people to see you as a writer or artist is for you to have an official website. When they see your short story and they type in your name online and a site pops up, it means “you’re professional,” and “you’ve been doing this for a while.” A website is a great way to advertise, put up some of your work, get attention, and have people “take you seriously.” It means that this isn’t just a passing phase or an idea that you consider from time to time.

Of course, the better looking the website, the better its affect.

You can make your own, have someone else design it for you, or even just have one off of a free site. Most college students have an idea on how to do it, so if you don't want to fork over the money for a professional, you could give the kid on your block a couple of bucks. It may not be that good, but it's cheaper. I would suggest making your own. This takes some effort, you need to learn html and have some visual talent, but it is cheap and can be easily changed from time to time.

Having some sort of online material that establishes who you are. There is something to be said when they can type in your name and have an official website pop up.

4) Lie as little as possible

I’d say don’t lie at all, but sometimes that’s not even the best policy. Most of the time, however, it is.

Nothing breeds hostility like a liar. When someone has on their resume that they can speak French, and they obviously can’t, it’s insulting. When an actor comes in late and says it was “a family emergency,” you are madder than if they had just told you the truth. When a writer tells you, “it’s supposed to mean whatever you want it mean,” you want to slap them.

Lying is indicative of insecurity as well as disrespect. An actor doesn’t say the real reason she was late because she doesn’t think the director would understand. Or she felt guilty because she was sitting there playing W.O.W. ten minutes longer than she should have been. It is a declaration that either she knew she did something wrong, or she thinks the director isn’t empathetic. When it comes to your career, getting caught in a lie is one of the worst things you can do for yourself. Why? Because it means that you're not "taking them seriously."

Most people are not as good of liars as they think they are. And even those who are fantastic at stretching the truth can’t keep it up for long. The fact of the matter is most Americans are more likely to assume that someone is lying when they’re not then that they’re telling the truth when they’re not. Essentially, if a person being lied to is on the fence of believing you, they probably won’t.

People don’t say anything when they believe you’re lying because, number one, they can’t prove it, and, number two, they don’t want to get into a fight. But, over the course of time, liars grow more and more evident and those around them grow more resentful. You might not have to face immediate consequences.

Plus, if you are putting yourself into situations where you need to lie, or situations you feel you need to lie, you're doing something wrong.

5) Hold yourself to higher standards

I had a teacher once say, “Do just as much work as your director is.”

He was the professor of a directing class, telling a bunch of actors to not worry that they’re director was probably going to fail his project.

He doesn’t believe this.

The man was simply trying to spite the student who wasn’t taking his work seriously.

The thing is, your director isn’t going to remember the crappy job he did, he’s going to remember the crappy job you did. When reference time comes up, he’s not going to say, “Well, John never learned his lines, but that’s only because I kept canceling my rehearsals.” He’s going to say, “He was a lazy ass.”

The amount of work put in is not about the amount of work others put in. If your script is the only thing that shines in a plague of actors who don’t know what “cheat out” means and a set that’s falling down, that’s fine. Yes, you may get a bad review and it won’t be your fault, but the other way would only be that you got a bad review and it would be your fault.

Edit past what your editor expects. Write better books than what’s being published now. In any situation, you want to do better than the average. It doesn't matter that no one else is sending their submissions in without typos, that might be the one thing that puts you ahead of the curve. The best way to be considered a writer is by writing well, no matter what horrible projects you find yourself in.

6) Don’t trash your work

It’s like someone taking a bite of a candy bar and going, “Oh gross,” then, “Try it.”

No. Thank you.

The reason why we artists have a tendency to preempt our work with an acknowledgment that it’s not our best is because it puts us off the hook. If it’s terrible, it’s okay. Because we know it’s terrible, right?

Unfortunately, not only does is not do any benefit, and it hurts your evaluation.

People will believe you. Unless it’s the best damn candy bar in the entire world, they’re probably going to agree. We’re very easily swayed by our biases, especially ones placed before we’re actually exposed. Especially by the one who created the candy bar in the first place.

Trashing your work is indicative of insecurity which always suggests inexperience. If you think it’s really bad, just don’t say anything. Let them decide. When they tell you how awful it is, just shrug and say, “The character of Julie came out with a totally different attitude then intended,” or whatever specific critique of yourself that you have. Or, again, don't say anything. If they're telling you right to your face it's terrible, they're probably being jerks anyway.

7) Don’t look willing to compromise

Imperative word being “look.”

This is contradictory to what one might believe. Nothing’s more annoying than an artistic diva demanding that no, the word, “can” should not be changed to “will.”

The best way I can explain it is this; people respect those who know what they’re doing. When someone comes up and makes an offer with a self damaging contingency, they make it look like there's something wrong with the offer.

If a man selling you his car and immediately says, “You only have to pay me half,” it looks sketchy. Either he’s desperate, or he’s ripping you off. It’s the same thing in the art world.

Deals like, “If you publish my book, I will give you exclusivity,” or “Here’s my novel, Dragons R Us—but you can change the title if you like,” or “If we do your set design we’d want to buy white paint and a clock, but if we do my set design, we’d want pink,” give the man in power the idea that you are, again, insecure and, again, inexperienced.

Furthermore, not only will their opinion of your expertise in the area be diminished, they are more likely to say no. It’s a strange psychological action: people tend to take the path of least resistance, which means if you’re sounding like you’re expecting them to say no, it makes them feel like not only is it okay to say no, but that they should.

Once upon a time two students were trying to do their senior theses in the theatre department. One wrote a script about a musical with vampires. The other wanted to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who did they say no to?

The woman who made her script, a short fluffy one-act whose music included stolen songs from the eighties was accepted.

The man who wanted to do the famous four person cast was rejected. He was also rejected nine more times for nine other plays.

Why?

The woman was a firecracker who was going to flip a bitch when they said no. The man was an appeaser who wouldn’t get involved in a conflict if someone tried to light his car on fire.

Don’t sell yourself too short. When bargains are needed for you to prove yourself, let them bring it up. If they say the problem is that they can’t pay you as much then offer for less, if that’s fine with you. Wait until there’s reason to make compromises before you jump in offering them left and right.

8) Respect others

You want to be taken seriously, take others seriously. Just by entering into the art world you’ve agreed to be a competitor among thousands of people. You’re constantly surrounded by hostility and the hopes that you fall flat on your face.

Most of this aggression, however, is a defensive mechanism: “I’ll hate you before you hate me.”

Just by choosing to assume that someone who says they are a writer is, in fact a writer, can open up a pathway of respect that will fall back to you. If they feel that you are taking them seriously, they’re less likely to wait for you to make a mistake. Starting up a pattern of expectations can aid situations by leading them in a direction you want to go.

Even if this new writer hasn’t ever even picked up a pen, by taking the stance that you really believe he can do it, he’ll see you in a better light.

Thus we fall back into the insecurity void. Disrespect comes from tension brought by uncertainty. Hoping this stranger is terrible at what he does makes you feel better. It makes you different. He’s not going to seriously try to follow this path, which is what’s going to get you ahead in life. "This is not how others see you."

Exuding confidence in your fellow man leads people to believe that you are just confident. When they believe you are confident, they admire you more.

9) Be open to every opportunity.

I said before that it is perfectly acceptable to not take on certain projects. This doesn’t mean that this should be your default stance. If you want people to believe that you are committed to writing, then you should agree to write things. You should write a lot. You should write for fun as well as for whatever silly project your friends are doing. "Selling out" is not an act of creating something you wouldn't have if someone didn't pay you. "Selling out" is where you create something against your morals.

In the book, The Secret, a self-help that tells people how to find happiness, it says that if you think about what you want every day, it will come to you.

My mother’s friend believed this. She decided she wanted a truck. She thought about it all the time, like the book said. She printed out a picture of it. She looked up online the kind she wanted. She knew what color, she knew what style, she knew everything about it.

One day, she was driving down the street, and there was a truck for sale.

A man’s wife was having a baby and he needed money.

It was the same truck, it was the same color, it was cheaper than it should have been. She bought it immediately. It has confirmed her belief in The Secret tenfold.

I don’t believe The Secret is magic. I believe that we have millions of opportunities pass us by every day, and all that The Secret does is help you to recognize them.

If she hadn’t decided what she wanted, if she hadn’t believed that she would get it, if she hadn’t looked up exactly and found exactly her needs, she would have driven right by the truck and never thought about it.

And even if she had gotten out of the car and looked at it, she’d probably think, “Oh, I don’t have the money right now,” or “I don’t need this.” She would have made some excuse because she didn’t really know if she wanted it.

Don’t let opportunities pass you by. When you see a contest that you think you should enter, do it. Don’t allow yourself to procrastinate or scare yourself out of it. You never know what's going to push you through the door. The ability to recognize opportunities is one of the foremost leaders to success.

10) Work hard

The best way to be taken seriously is to do it. Nothing says serious artist like a huge ass resume.

The only way to get a resume is by doing the work. Doing good work can get you more work. Trying can help you in ways that you couldn’t imagine.

If you really want it, you have to show it. So many other people in the world are fighting for that same thing you want. The main aspect that they falter on is putting in the effort.

When people see you working hard, when they hear about the journals your short stories are in, when your friends laughed at that youtube video that you wrote, despite the terrible acting and a camera that blurs randomly, they start to respect you as someone more than a person with a foolish dream. If you do more work than them, if you put in the effort, it will show.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Accepting Rejection

Yesterday, I went to auditions for the play Dracula to assist the director in handing out sides, taking resumes, and doing other stage managerly things I was not getting paid for. I sat behind the table and watched as the actors got up and read their lines, danced about like monkeys, and nervously tried to appear pleasant and professional. When it was over, the director turned to me and the other assistant and began to discuss whom he was going to choose. He asked me if I agreed with his favorites. I laughed and said, “No.”

The actress who I thought did best he waved away with a “puh,” and said, “Absolutely not. I was going to call back the whole group except for her.” I’m not positive about his reasoning, but I can see two. The more logical, her energy and characteristics were indicative of the wrong time period, she wasn’t playing “Victorian.” Or, the more likely, she had short hair and a nose ring. I'd like to point out this was changeable, but the director was going based on his gut, not his head.

Plus, she couldn’t make it to the auditions tomorrow when the callbacks were. I assume this was a factor because, as I found over the course of the night that every time he said, “This does not mean you’re not going to get a part,” he meant, “You’re not going to get a part.” So when he added this to her when she told him she had work tomorrow and couldn’t make the suddenly sprung callbacks, I translated accordingly.

He also continuously told us assistants, “You probably see Lucy with blonde hair, but I’m not married to that.”

Me thinks thou doth protest too much.

His casting choices were obvious. He favored the two men from Equity (the actor’s union) and SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, and the older man whom he had acted with many times before. His “absolutely”s hung around them, despite his friend coming in late, sitting down, cold reading in a monotone, and getting up and leaving. One equity member was the costume designer, and he had been terrible. The other I didn’t even remember. The only girl who he had "really liked" had gushed about his last performance in 1776. She had been good, but he loved her, and I think it was apparent why.

And there was one more thing that affected his answers. Ageism. Anyone who’s under the age of 30 and is trying to be taken seriously knows this can factor in. I’ve never been treated like an idiot because I was a woman, but I have because I was young.

The director clearly had Youth Envy. He is an old man, probably around 70, whose insecurities leads him to try and prove how much he knows about everything. When we were driving him home, he made a point to sing along with every single musical song, announcing their titles as they went, trying to establish that he was, in fact, an expert. To a bunch of theatre people.

I’m met a lot of these men, these older gentlemen with (perceived) failed careers still committed to their art despite being forced to become teachers or community theatre directors. A good number of them hate their students or any burgeoning actor who is under the age of 25. Like the cliché of the 30 year old ballet dancer, she looks to the young girls as the enemy: the people who will be taking her parts because she is just getting too old. They have the doors opening for them and hers are closing. Thus, she starts to subconsciously attempt to prevent them from pushing forward.

The director last night would not cast young. As I heard him speak, I realized his plans oriented around only looking at the men who were over forty. For Van Helsing, this made sense. He was a lawyer and a teacher, a learned gentleman, and someone who was clearly experienced in the world. But for Dracula and Reinfield, it didn’t. Reinfield was the narrator, an insane side character in the book who becomes the henchman of the vampire count. His age was nonspecific. Dracula’s age changed. Sometimes he was ancient, and looked it. Others, he was a handsome youth. It is easier to make someone older than it is to make someone younger.

He wouldn’t even look at the actors who were below thirty.

At the end of the night, when the other assistant and I were driving home from dropping the director off, he looked to me and said, “What kind of wazoo casting is that?”

Both of us found the “puh” girl to be the best cold read of the night. Neither of us were impressed by his friends. The assistant and I were more congruent on our choices than the old director’s. We didn’t get it.

My point is this: The girl we found as having the highest “quality” of work didn’t even get a callback. This is not uncommon.

Quality doesn’t get you there. It’s not what leads someone to pick up the book. You can’t go into a store and look for the best book; you won’t recognize it until you’ve read it. You go by reputation (Actor’s Equity Member) and head off to the bestsellers list, or the novel your friend recommended. You go by subject matter (the blonde hair) and look in the romance aisle. You look at the covers (the ages) and you grab it and hope it will be good. You can look at the back (the cold read) and glimpse the first couple of pages, but, in the end, you won’t be sure of the quality until you’ve finished it.

This is the same for agents, this is the same for judges. Look at the bad books that have gotten published and you’ll see severe similarities. They have a nice concept or they fit into a nice fad.

Or they were one of the few books that didn’t fit into a fad. I once heard about a contest judge who was reading through over 1,000 short stories. There she found a ridiculous number of them contained the same image: The leading male character, for whatever reason, was carrying around or reading, or just talked about, an obscure Russian writer. They weren’t similar enough to be copied, the moment wasn’t important to be some sort of weird trick. As she kept reading, she started to toss these pompous stories in a pile. Not a single one was even considered as a finalist.

Were they bad? Cliché? The reality was that it was just a freak occurrence. Maybe there was something in the air that caused a large number of people to think that was a good idea, but in reality, there was no way they could have known that that would be the issue. Had the same story gone to another contest, it may have won something, but because of the luck of the draw, they found themselves losing.

Stephan King’s Carrie, the book that made him big, got rejected over 30 times. Chicken Soup for the Soul over a hundred. Harry Potter couldn’t get published in England, which is why Scholastic Scholar makes it now. Seinfield’s pilot almost got the whole series pulled before it started, and Twilight got over 15 different rejection letters before someone liked it enough to try it. And get this, one of the main reasons the vampire novel even got made was because the new agent hadn’t realized that 130,000 words is a lot.

Some of these books you may consider terrible. Some you may consider great. The point is that vast rejection isn’t something that should make you give up. Many times things get thrown out for stupid, inane, obscure, or timing reasons, and they get thrown out over and over again. It doesn’t meant that it’s bad.

It also doesn’t mean that it’s good. It means it got rejected, end of story.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cutting: A Writer's Process

The story’s too long. You’ve decided this, your teacher’s decided this, your editor’s decided this, the margin’s decided this. For whatever reason, it can’t stay at the length it is now. Now you must take the scissors to it.

The question begins, where to start?

"YOU CAN..."

How to cut a work is determined by the desired effect. If it is, in fact, “too long,” being that the regulations of a contest demand a smaller number of words, or the margins of the newspaper column won’t fit, or the novel is so damn huge a publisher won’t touch it, then the easiest first step is to just

Cut the Excess Words.

Very simply, make the sentences all as short as possible. Remove any word that doesn’t change the meaning of the phrase.

For example, take my sentence above:

Make sentences as short as possible. Remove unnecessary words.

By just cutting most of the “slack” and changing one expression, I brought my word count down from 21 to 9.

This makes it smaller without needing to cut parts of the story. Often, the work can be made into 1/3 the size without changing its contents at all. If deleting moments was a painful thought, now it isn't a problem.

A lot of advice says to do this anyway—whenever an author’s writing anything. I disagree. If everyone cut to the bare minimum without a deliberate purpose in mind, writing styles would grow homogenized. I saw only cut excess words when trying to fix a problem. Often the writer put them there for a reason: My first sentence sounds different than the second. The shorter version reads more sharply, and on the edge of a little more hostility. Changing the tiny details can alter the entire intention.

There are many reasons that shorter sentences can be better than long but the main reason for the absolute fixation is this: The past generation wrote longer. It’s a pendulum thing. When most people are trying to be poetic and long winded, then succinct is preferred. When they’re sweet and to the point, alliteration is preferred. We’re all about variation. Writing advice is all hypothetical. They assume you have the problem the majority has, and makes rules accordingly.

There are several situations in which considering cutting out excess words can better a work:

1. If the sentence is confusing.
2. If he needs a smaller word count.
3. If he’s trying to instill hostility, faster pacing, or a more tense moment.
4. If the description is boring.

Essentially, it is a great tool for fixing certain issues. It is not something to base a style around. Especially considering how much sentence length affects mood.

"OR YOU CAN..."

If the length of the work is affected by pacing or story, and not the literal length, consider Stephan King’s definition of a second draft: The first draft minus 10%.

Deleting the “Musings”

Stephan King has the slowest pacing of today’s great writers. Not much actual action happens in a lot of his books. Yet, he manages to draw the audience in throughout long durations of action dry spells. How does he do this? You tell me, because I have no flippin' clue.

But from his declaration that all second drafts should be shorter, I recognized the connection between my own belief that a good portion of the first draft (probably about 10%) is what I call “stalling.”

Often times, the writer isn’t positive of every aspect. A good amount of the story is him figuring out what’s going to happen next, or playing around. He knows that Johnny has to get from the village to the Mountain of the Apes, but doesn’t know what should happen as he’s traveling. Or he realizes that this is the point Lucy wants to admit her feelings, but isn’t sure how to bring it out in conversation. He turns to the Stream of Consciousness.

For those of you who don’t know, Stream of Conscious writing is, basically, where the author just writes. He doesn't think about it. He allows his subconscious to lead the plot. He doesn’t plan, he doesn’t self-edit, he just does.

The Stream of Consciousness, however, tends to ramble. It explores and finds itself, going all over the place before it figures out the direction it wants to go in. It’s a fantastic way of finding “the point.”

When deleting for content, looking for the moments in which the author started to ramble is the best way to cut parts that aren’t actually story oriented. Understanding that there are three descriptions as to “how the Magic Medallion works” makes the author realize he felt he wasn’t clear the first two times. He kept describing it until he was satisfied the audience got it. So, he now cuts the first two parts.

Deleting the author’s muses, or his explorations, rid the story of the parts that don’t move the plot forward. Looking for these moments of “stalling” is a good way to give a fresh look at the situation when the author is having problems understanding his own point.

"OR YOU CAN..."

Last but not least is the hardest but easiest method:

Want to Delete It

The technique is simple. Read through the story many, many times. Do lots and lots of edits. Eventually, the editor will get to a part in which he says, “Oh my God, I have to read that again?”

By that point, he’ll want to delete it. Then he won’t have to read it again. "I don't need to edit something that's not in the story." If he possibly can remove it, then he will. If there is important information in there, he’ll recognize that and labor through it, or maybe try to change it so it doesn’t bore him so.

This is the easiest way to find the appropriate parts to delete, but it takes the most effort, because it demands more time and actually doing the work of reading the crap.

"UNFORTUNATELY..."

In the end, the hardest part of cutting is the mentality that “I did all that work for nothing.” Feeling as though the author wasted his time writing all of those pages and then, they’re just gone, demoralizes him some.

Some of the ways that a writer can prevent feeling dejected when erasing what took him so long to write can be 1) Keeping it—Adding the cuts to another file makes the author feel it’s still there, he can always get it back. 2) Still rewarding himself for writing it—Still counting the pages deleted as effort included. “It may be a 300 page story now, but I still wrote 500.” 3) Understanding that often portions of “unnecessary” scenes is just the same as brainstorming, and led the story along. Or 4) Choosing not to be attached. Decision is one of the most powerful tools we have, and the simple act of admitting that you want to cut it down can take out a lot of the heartbreak.

Friday, August 5, 2011

5 Parts of a Story That Will Induce Writer’s Block

If I pre-plan a novel, I can recognize immediately which parts are going to be the hardest for me to get through. Often, when someone tells me a story they have in mind, I know the exact points they’re going to get hung up.

Finishing a novel is almost as hard as starting it; there are several points where an author is bound to get stuck. Here’s five places in which most writer's begin to lose interest in their own work.


1. After the Premise is Over

The “Premise” is the idea that makes the book "unique". It is like the plot, but doesn’t actually have any plot elements to it. There’s no conflict or super objective involved. It’s the most interesting part of the story, but doesn’t drive it forward.

For example, Harry Potter’s premise is that a little boy finds himself to be a wizard and then goes to wizarding school. It has the world, it has the character, it has the main interest, but if you notice, it doesn’t indicate where the story is going to go. "The plot" is the conflict, oriented around the defeat of Voldemort.

What happens is, and I still do this every time I come up with an idea, the author owns some idea and writes about it for pages and pages. It’s a slick slope, and he’s loving it, encountering no problems, having fun, speeding right through… And then it stops. Just abruptly. The inspiration's done. He doesn’t know where to go. This is because he doesn't yet know what his conflict is.


This is the perfect place to input the inciting incident. By this point, the author should have a general idea of what the character's main goal is, i.e. what’s going to be solved by the end of the book. If he isn’t sure yet, then he completely loses his momentum.


2. The Character’s Floating

This usually happens in the middle or right after The Premise for some. The character doesn’t want anything. He doesn't know where he's headed. He's indecisive.

There’s a point in film, about an hour in, when it occurs to members of the audience to look at their phones and see how close it is to being done. Essentially what has happened is the character's lost objective. Either he started out with one and it changed (he wanted to be the greatest soldier for Lord Archtype, but then realized the man was evil and he couldn’t possibly) or he’s been led around by events until then and hasn’t needed to make a choice yet. The character doesn’t know where he’s going or where he wants to go, and neither does the author. The man in the story is just existing, waiting for something to happen to him.

The creator than has to force a path on him. She cannot be dependent on the character’s actions to push the events forward, which—believe it or not—they usually do, but has to contrive some happenstance to set the putsch in motion. She, in a weird way, has to convince the character to do what she wants. Hard to do, the author finds herself stuck.

3. The Climax

Whether it’s getting to Lord Archtype’s bedchambers or the actual battle that ensues, the whole portion of the climax is the most important and one of the hardest parts to write. Having all the elements connect, making it poignant, having it quick but not too quick, keeping up the doubt as to outcome for as long as possible, it takes a certain finesse that indecision cannot work with.

I once wrote a 100,000 word novel in one month—except for the last fifteen pages. Six weeks past until I eventually finished it, and it was the most painful portion to trudge through that I’ve ever worked on. I wrote half of another book before I could force myself to get back to it.

Stalling just before the “big bang” is common, though the reasons vary. Mine is a very simple problem—I don’t know what the story was trying to say, and I wasn’t sure what the conflict actually was.

Sounds like the story had no story, when you don't understand the specifics. The real issue was I just couldn’t be decisive about it. Choosing “the moral” can really benefit the author in times of lethargy and blockage. Knowing that the good guys won due to “drive” or “love” or “money” can indicate exactly how the story should end. If the point of a Sci-fi war flick is that war is won by those who plan better, then clearly, the resolution should be one by strategy.

The movie Captain America was an example how a sickly young man could overcome his differences by being braver and more honorable than others, when he chose to die in the space ship to save millions, it made sense.


Of course, even if you do understand that you’re trying to say, “Look how smart this guy is,” you then have to be smart yourself, which may be the reason you can’t think of what to write.


4. “Battle”

This is a better way of saying, “The parts you don’t care about.” See, if I started with that, the immediate impression would be that if you don't care, you should keep it out. But when I say “you” I don’t mean the hypothetical person, I mean, the author’s personal self.

I am not interested in action sequences. I tune them out and wait for the hero to win like I assume he would. I have no idea how he did it and if anything important happened in the meanwhile, I will not have seen it. But, fight scenes, especially in certain genres, are usually important. I write fantasy and about adventurers, so it’d make sense that I do encounter the problem every once in a while.


I will then proceed to work on every other story I have going until I can force myself through it days, weeks, or months later.


This is an issue for everyone at some point in their career. A writer who is terrible at characters will eventually have to write emotion based scenes. The author who finds romance idiotic may want to have his hero actually get the girl in the end, and people who find pain incredibly painful will still need some sort of conflict. There will be a time when a creator has to work on a part that’s hard for him. It will take longest and be the greatest writer’s block inducer he can deal with. It will also be the greatest indicator of exactly what he likes and hates in entertainment.


5. From Part A to Part B

The writer wants Harry and Jimmy to get into a fight. As of right now, they’re on great terms, as the author wants it, and by the end of the dinner they need to hate each other’s guts. The creator knows what she wants to happen, and she may even know exactly what she wants them to fight about, but she doesn’t know how to get them there. She wants to show the gradual growth, but getting from point A to point B is hard. She get’s writer’s block, and she quits. This could be any scene in which something important has just happened, and now we need to move onto the next plot point, but obviously they can’t go right after one another, or the pacing will be really weird.

This is very similar to the Floating Character problem. In the end, it is best solved by understanding the character’s objectives—knowing Harry wants to become a writer and make him go on a tangent about his ideas for his story could put Jimmy in a bad enough mood for him to snap. Or finding other information in the story that also needs to be said and adding it; you wanted to talk about how Jimmy is actually an orphan who was raised in the circus, it could make Harry feel bad enough to be snippy. Or you could start writing backwards. Going from the point in which Harry leaps up and threatens to attack Jimmy, and then saying what was said before that and before that and before that could give it a natural look into how the conversation got to where it was, especially if it doesn’t matter where they started off as long as they end angry.

If an artist has a lot of half finished works then he should look at the reasons he stopped where he did. The vast majority of the time will be due to him encountering the same issue each time. Maybe one of the same here, may its something unique. If he can think of a reason why he can't get passed a certain point, then that's the best thing for him to focus on.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

10 Ways to Make Criticism Useful

If you want to write a blog and you don't want to be criticized, make it about criticism. Posts about "editing" and "techniques to becoming a better writer" all have the same sort of comments from readers at the end:

"This is a fantastic piece of advice. People will learn a lot from this. I was an idiot before," and then, "You know, I'm a starving writer who has a book coming out soon..."

Think I'm kidding? Type in "10 writing" on Google and look under anything that has a comment box at the end.

The assumption everyone can edit and that every piece of opinion is useful is a good belief. I think it's true. I find it hard to swallow that it's that easy to work with whatever they gave you. Most of the time, in fact, criticism seems so arbitrary/vague/picky/"clever" that it's hard to tell what the reader actually has a problem with.

On the rare occasions the author finally gets some honest feedback, he doesn't want to waste the opportunity. Here are ten tips that can tell you what to do with advice you don't know what to do with.
If It's Vague
1.
She said, "It's good."

She doesn't mean it. It's possible that she will mean it; it may be good, it may be bad, but she doesn't mean it now.
She doesn't know yet. She does know if she liked it or not. She knows how she feels about it, but when the author asked, she literally forgot. Only for an instant. It's an automatic, knee-jerk response. She either doesn't know what to say, doesn't want to hurt feelings, she doesn't know what he's looking for, or she hasn't really digested it. If he can, the author should ask specifics. "What did you think about the love scene?" He could also wait a day and ask again. If she presses the "It's good," it means she didn't like it at all. If she starts talking then the author can push her in the direction he thinks are the problem and gauge her opinion by her excitement versus reserved levels.
When further questioning isn't an option:
If he can't push it any further (it was a written review, anonymous, or a momentary chance) he must just throw it away. It doesn't say anything other than she didn't want to talk about it, or couldn't.

2.
He says, "I didn't like the [dialogue]"
He doesn't have a taste for a part of it, and he won't tell you why. All he will say is he didn't like it. He didn't like it, the author should change it, it was "weird," etc. Giving examples as to what he may not like about it, "Is it not believable?" "Cliche?" "Are the characters unlikeable?" "Is it too expositional?" may introduce him to his own reasoning. He may just not know.
When further questioning isn't an option:
If he is unwilling to go into more details, it may mean that he doesn't want to be there or doesn't like the author, or feels in competition with her. To use a straightforward vague statement such as "I didn't like this," the author can, before reading it again, think as to what
she personally does not like about her dialogue. Then, when rereading it, she can pay very close attention to the portions he wasn't a fan of. Of course, that leads to Quantum Reading, when, now that she's looking for something, she can't be objective about it.

Taking it to someone else and having them look it over (not always a viable option as everyone knows how hard it is to get the first person to read it) can lend some light on the subject. If he says something about it without being told what it is he's looking for, the author can further questions with him. If he doesn't mention it, she can then tell the first person's opinion and see what he's talking about.
If It's Arbitrary/Picky
3.
He assumes and sees only what he assumed.

This is something writers start to recognize after talking with others in the field for a long time. A peer (fellow writer, editor, agent, avid reader, professor) recognizes the typical pitfalls of Amature Writing: it's very long, it's trying to sound smart, the author's in love with the main character, etc. This peer will then be prepared that the author's "amateur work" will be a victim of the same sort of things. It then does not matter what the author actually has done, the reader will then only give the already assumed feedback and will not be convinced to diverge onto anything else. This mentality only comes when the reader doesn't respect the author. The problem when the peer has committed to this view is 1) It may not be true, 2) Even if it is true, there are other facets he could talk about (maybe even more important things).

If the author doesn't recognize this is what is happening then he will not need/be able to debate whether or not he needs to look at this.

If he does realize this may be what the reader is doing, he needs to ask himself, "Did I think that was true before?" "Do I think it's probably true now?" It all becomes based on self-evaluation.

4.
She'll never let it go.

This is what I call the "English Teacher Complex" only for the reason that most people have had this experience in an English class. (See The Teacher's Pet Peeve). She has three comments on the student's paper and they all say, "Get rid of the 'you.'" The author already knew of this rule because the editor/teacher always says the same thing. He wrote it despite (or to spite) knowing this. Now, should he cleanse it from the paper?

He clearly can't just ask her. She'd always say yes. Most people would just assume yes. Which leads to the first question he can ask himself: What does it do for the work? He could always fight it, and if it is just her opinion and stubbornness, then it doesn't matter if he keeps it. This of course lends itself to the decision of Picking His Battles. He shouldn't keep it unless he finds it important enough to fight about.

If his concern is strictly the quality of the work with no bias on one side or the other, he can use these techniques.

First is What are Your Concerns? If the problems are that his story is supposed to be tense and action packed and its very casual, and she wants him to take out all the "reallys" then, yes, that would benefit him. If his movie has no climax and the editor is complaining that there's a scene in which he wrote "a description that couldn't be shown" then it's probably not what he should focus on.

Second is to pretend the story is the worst piece of crap in the world. If it is, will this correction legitimately make it better? He has a lot of saids in there. Assuming that, since it is so very, very terrible, he cannot get away with it like a "good" writer could, then he should probably change it. If it's a seven page story and he used said twice, it's unlikely that that's what's holding the work back.

Third is to pretend that he is freakin' Shakespeare, the story is a published work, and it is polished beyond all belief. Would it be a comment that someone would make on it then? (See Draft Eye). No one complains that
The Hobbit has two titles, but they may whine that their peer's short story does.

5.
He wants to brag.

Stephan King says that criticism is often not about you. The reality is that when someone is talking it's not about you, or even what it looks to be about. When a critic wants to brag about his knowledge, his ability to write, or how much better than he is than the author, it is actually the easiest form of criticism to translate from words to action.

Essentially the author can tell when someone is bragging based on
the lack of references. My friend once received a review a whole page long just about how "dragons don't eat virgins." There was no "suggestions" in the entire thing. He didn't even hint at that he wanted the story changed so that the virgin wasn't being sacrificed. He didn't say why the plot point was a problem, why he didn't like it, and, in the end, didn't really mention the work once. It was clearly just him on a catharsis to indicate how much more of a fantasy lover he was.

Though the criticism cannot easily be used to make the work
better, it can indicate how "real" readers are going to react. Twilight wouldn't be Twilight if the vampires didn't sparkle, but that is the problem that a good portion of the "haters" go on rants about.
6. He doesn't like the subject matter.
Tough. Subject matter is one of the most prevalent part in a work's desirability, but there is no such thing as a story that everyone will enjoy. "Common denominator" is the closest you get, and no one wants that. It's just not her thing, accept it. Take her criticism with that in mind.

7.
She doesn't have comprehension of subject matter.

A student wrote a story about zombies. The character gets bitten. He doesn't tell anyone and he leaves at the end. The writer's classmate did not understand why he left. For those of you who are not zombie fans, it's a popular idea that being bitten turns a victim into the undead.

How much explanation should the story have?

This is a huge debate amongst writers. Some people that it should explain everything. I say that's treating your audience like idiots. Some say know your audience. That's hard.
Twilight and Harry Potter have similar audiences, Twilight and Interview with the Vampire do too. Harry Potter and Interview with the Vampire do not.

It's pretty much up to the writer. (And the publisher.) He will have to ask himself, how important is it that it is told? How much time will it take to explain it? How much editorializing will that mean? Will it make the audience feel like that writer doesn't know much about the subject? (It's possible) And yes, even, who's the target group?
If It's "Clever"
8.
He's trying to show off.
The only problem with this is that it's hard to get some sense out of them. The critic imagines himself some sort of "Simon" and he's attempting to be funny over helpful. A great example of this is when, in a creative writing class, a student said to another, "You need to take your thesaurus and throw it out." This was mostly amusing because he actually wanted her to do the opposite. She had started the majority of her sentences with,
"He watched her as..." "He saw her as..." "He followed her as..." And by majority, I mean three. He found it repetitive and wanted her to vary it up. After a lot of explanation, the class finally understood what the hell he was talking about.

The very simplest way to deal with this is to say, "What?"
When further questioning isn't an option:
Make it into a problem instead of a suggestion. "Throwing out your thesaurus," in the literal way wouldn't benefit it. Using distracting words might be the issue. Using unusual words may be the problem. Rereading it with word choice in mind could have drawn out the obvious repetitiveness, although, when people aren't clear and to the point, it is just a grab bag.
If It's Offensive
9.
He's is in Competition

Offensive criticism is the hardest to use beneficially. For one, the writer doesn't want to. People can be offended even when the critic is trying hard to be nice. But, more often than not, their reviewer is not even even bother to keep it playful. If it's a person who considers himself a writer, he will want the author to be bad at her job. It makes him better in comparison.

These types of criticisms are both the most helpful and the most useless at the same time. They have the propensity to be highly critical, pointing out miniscule things that no one would notice, pushing the writer to try harder and remove all flaws, really driving the artist to do his best. On the other hand, they
are things that no one would notice.

See above in the arbitrary rules. Essentially, that's what any competitive advice is. It's biased, but that doesn't mean it can't be useful. To figure out how to use it, the author needs to recognize if it's important or not. She can do that by asking herself the same questions when dealing with picky advice.

10.
She has personal issues.
The editor hates you. She wants the author to fail, or she doesn't care either way. She's not bothering to be at all pleasant or nice because she doesn't think that's an important part of critiquing. Everything she says is extremely blunt or downright rude.

Take everything at face value. When she says, "don't ever use the word 'just,'" it means, don't use it
here. She will act like everything is an obvious mistake and not an opinion, and the way she speaks to you is indicative she thinks you don't know what you're doing.

When she says something especially rude, you can always ask, "Can you be more specific?" The especially insulting criticisms are always vague or absolute. The response will be more understandable.

"Don't ever use the word, 'you.'"

"Can you be more specific?"

"More specific than what? Don't ever do it?"

"Can you show me where I use it and tell me what it does to my sentence?"

If she really is just being blunt instead of actually a bitch, she should clarify to the best of her ability. If she insults you directly, see competitive above.

Also, unless you actually think she's helping you, don't go back to her. Even if it is the best piece of advice in the world, if you can't use it to the fullest because you feel bad, it's not worth it. Learning to take criticism and being able to use it are two very different things.



(These, of course, are pieces of advice for dealing with controlled drafts. Agents and publishers usually get the final say.)