Sunday, August 26, 2012

Treat Yourself How Others Should Treat You

The best advice I’ve ever heard was not from a writer, but from a cartoon artist. Though I have never seen Phil McAndrew’s work outside his blog, “Super Obvious Secrets That I Wish They’d Teach in Art School,” has stuck with me ever since the first time I Stumbled upon it.

Most of it is pretty accurate and fairly well told. Things like draw every day and be nice to people are good but common pieces of advice he explains in a readable way. But the unique and interesting singular suggestion that really hit me was number eight on the list: “Don’t trash talk yourself.”

He explains:

“Why would you expect someone else to take your work seriously when even you, the person who created it, are openly talking about how much it sucks?”

Whenever I repeat this advice, however, I get the same, horrified response, “I wasn’t trashing myself.”

Which is part of the problem. We are so accustomed to defending ourselves through pre-emptive self-attacks that half the time we aren’t even realizing we’re doing it. Statements like “I wrote a couple of crappy young adult novels before writing the rough draft,” “That’s probably why I’ll never have a super popular blog will millions of followers,” and “I just hit 30k on my new project and didn’t completely hate it!” all count. It is easy to see why someone might think it doesn’t because they’re just telling the truth.

But note: all of these statements were uttered by the same woman, Jill Hathaway, the author of Slide. When I first read her interview in Writer’s Digest, I found myself growing more disenchanted with her in each and every answer. To be fair, I didn’t find the article with knowledge of her or her book, and after moving on to her blog, I still have no idea what it is about.

Skimming through her blogs, I couldn’t find one that didn’t have some sort of defensive statement, whether it be her inclination to explain that “You gotta read it, y’all,” isn’t grammatically correct, or just talking about how her book required so many rewrites.

Here’s the thing - She sounds like a nice person. She isn’t condescending and clearly not egocentric, she’s honest and to the point, and as a person I can admire her openness. As a writer, I get the distinct idea that she doesn’t think she knows what she’s doing.

A fan commented on her blog asking her about the title. Her response? “Uh…”

Why respond at all? If I had been that fan, interested enough to find her webpage and ask about her book and gotten that answer, I would have been offended. It feels as though she is saying, “That’s a stupid question!” Worse, it sounds like she has no answers, as if she hasn’t put any thought into it.

I bring this up not to give her bad P.R. I don’t actually believe that insecurity reflects on the novel’s quality. I haven’t read Slide, and I can’t critique it. I’m talking about this because I have no intention on reading it.

This woman had my attention for more than I could ask of a total stranger, and she did not intrigue me into even sampling her book. And it wasn’t as though there weren’t opportunities. The interviewer asked her what novel was about and she gave this uninspired one word answer. She spent more time explaining about her crappy other books than she did about this new one. The commenter gave her the option to plug her story inside her own blog by asking about it, and she just gave him a grunt.

And it’s not as though this is an uncommon mistake. In the last week, I’d read two other interviews that were tainted by this problem. One was by a standup comedian who kept talking about project that went wrong, but not telling us how, just repeating, “I wasn’t prepared.”

The point of interviews is to give information. I’m reading it to hear about these people, and when they answer questions succinctly, or worse, play a politicians game of nonanswers, the interview is boring, and you’ve done nothing to advertise yourself.

Lastly, a good question for authors to ask themselves is “Why is my fantasy better than yours?” Why do people read books when they can have a story to themselves that they control and isn’t limited by standards of protocol or expectations of readers. The answer is because it’s better thought out. The author knows more about his world than the average daydreamer does. An author’s fantasy has continuity, gravity, and realism, and does the hard work so that the reader doesn’t have to. Which means that when the reader doesn’t believe that the author knows what he’s doing and has put more thought into the world than she has in the shower, she’s not going to bother read anything he’s written. And what leads the reader to think the book’s fantasy isn’t more intelligent than her temporary one? The author indicating that he isn’t sure of anything either.

We all are insecure. On the rise to success, few of us see ourselves as experts. American society likes to see the successful as a different sort of being, a person who has it easy, a person who is meant to do great things and thus never questions if he can. But that creature doesn’t exist, which means that no matter if you are Stephan King, Gandhi, or the pope, you’re going to question yourself. The trick is to pretend like you don’t and keep your insecurities to yourself until you can say it in a funny and light-hearted manner – see any article in Hyperbole and a Half.

Friday, August 17, 2012

5 Tips for Interesting Scenes

The sad truth of this career is that reading is boring. Even the most exciting books have their moments. It takes more focus than when watching a movie or even listening to a tape, and novelists can't depend on showing pretty images to cover up for any tedious editorializing.

It’s hard to be interesting. Not just in the writing world, but socially even. We have told a bad story, or worse, told a good story badly. And sometimes, we don’t even know how we messed it up.

So it makes sense that in the course of months, working in anywhere from 80,000 to 150,000 words, an author would come across passages that he just goes, “My God, this is dull.” It is worse, however, when the next sentence in his mind is, “What the hell went wrong?”

1. Pack it full of information.

A sentence can communicate anywhere from a single image to a whole world. “There was a dog on a leash,” is different then, “The mangy mutt stretched his leash tight on the lamp post.” The second illustrates everything the first does, adding the pup's hygiene, hints to mood, and gives details to the location. Neither on is better than the other. At least not without context. Either can be boring. One is much longer than the other, but, if we wanted to give the same information out, the shorter sentences would actually take more time to read. How long a writer wants to take delivering information is based on many different elements (the importance of it, the length of time he wants to indicated has passed), but a strong factor in it is how bored the reader is.

Scenes are the same as sentences; they can be one little event stretched out, or many squished together.

Take a look what the reader has learned from the text. It should be more than just events. Does it say anything about the characters’ back story or personality? Does it give details to the setting or the people’s uncommon circumstances? (Whether that be supernatural rules, a look into the life of a drug dealer, or the type of cereal a billionaire eats.) Does it foreshadow future events? How much of the story is even told here?

Sometimes the scene just needs more reasons for existing. Adding humor is generally a quick fix, but it’ll backfire if someone catches you at it. Easy information is abnormal information. The problem may be that the scene and the characters are too typical – The character is just “normal” or a  stereotype. Giving them anything that makes them different, she is recovering from cancer, he has an addiction to chewing gum, is just the type of detail that can make the business meeting a little less dull.

Sometimes, all a writer has to do is smoosh sentences together; instead of having each give a little piece of the story, have less say more.

2. Constant conflict.

Both authors and readers get bored when there isn’t a clear direction that the story is going. True in life as well as fiction, when there is no conflict, there is no reason to change. When we are happy, we are stagnant.

Constant conflict is an easy fix. Easier said than it looks like, in fact. Why? Because the conflict doesn’t always have to do with the plot. Little things like Samwise stepping on Frodo’s heels (I’m adlibbing here) to Ron Weasley trying to fill a page worth of essay (true story) can give enough of a problem to be a background for the important editorializing.

The writer wants to fluctuate the intensity of problems and conflicts as he goes. With high stakes constantly leering, the reader is going to get tired and the writer will have nowhere to go from. But, when it comes to the opposite, too many little things, will not be taken seriously either. Conflict usually requires overlapping, so that when one problem is solved, giving a little satisfaction to the reader, there are still others that they want to see concluded.

This is one reason that many books and movies have duel plots inner twined. The characters seem to come to an end in one, they can be propelled by the other until they stumble upon a new lead for the other.

And when the author comes to a situation that everything seems good for the people, he knows that there needs to be something done about that. A big disaster can send things rolling again.

3. Opinionated narrators over unbiased narrators.

When I say “narrator” it does not necessarily mean an actual character. Narrator is the person who is telling the story, though it may never be discussed, hinted at, or even decided who that person is.

English class had taught us to be neutral observers when it comes to writing. We don’t want to use “I feel” or indicate that we are human.

There is a place for this sort of style, and it’s not that I am taking a stance against the neutral narrator. It can achieve goals and atmospheres that characterizing the speaker won’t. But, people do tend towards this tone, and unless the author has a specific reason to do it, there’s no point in that sort of heartache.

People like people. It’s why there aren’t books that are basically summaries. Our favorite shows, novels, and movies have our favorite characters; there are few that we like despite hating everyone. We like extreme emotions. We feel for the passionate.

In the book Misery, I did not feel as bad for Paul Sheldon when he got his foot sludge hammered or thumb cut off nearly as much as I did for Annie when she dropped the bottle of champagne she had been saving for a special occasion. In Little Shop of Horrors, the dentist pleading for help about brings me to tears, but when Seymour (in one version) charges in to be eaten, I was like, eh. Sympathy is different for each individual, but nothing leads people to cry more than people crying.

Having an opinion about the events, an interpretation of the descriptions, judgment about the characters, and just the simple explanation why the narrator cares makes people care.

I can describe a car or I can describe the beauty in the parking lot. I can tell you about a man or I can complain about a bastard. I can tell you what happened or I can explain what went wrong. In any case, there’s a reason gossip is more fun than the news.

4. Gloss over information and events we don’t care about.

It’s hard to tell what people will want to know and what they’ll be fascinated by. We’re all different and some of us have the strangest obsessions. If it were easy then there’d be no point in reading this article.

But, it’s not impossible to predict. Generally, if we trudge through a hard to read text and ask, does this deliver information that anyone cares about?

I recently read a short story about a kidnapping. Twenty pages of it and all I was interested in the “why.” But it began with a long introduction about the “how.” Though it had some foreshadowing events to it that benefited the question of why (the criminal cared about the child’s claustrophobia, helping my curiosity), the attack itself was obvious. Got a van, snatched and grabbed. In fact, at the end of the read, that’s all that I felt needed to be said about it.

I personally have the bad habit of prioritizing the duration of the moment over the importance and even over the interest. Ever since I watched The Lion King and they skipped throughout the whole of Simba’s life, I always hated cutting through large periods of time. Not only that, but I often want to give an indication of time taken.

There are times in which the writer wants to go into detail of each footstep and thought. There are many times in which he might want to just skip it. Though duration and importance of the moment are significant factors, the highest priority is if the reader is interested. If he doesn’t care, but it needs to be said, getting it out as quickly as possible should be the best way to go.

This seems too vague to be usable. But it’s a question that is easy to answer. Do I think my readers care about this? As long as you are honest with yourself, and don’t answer what you want to hear, you’re going to come up with a reason to cut it or keep it.

5. Not being predictable is different than being unpredictable.

We often have goals of being unpredictable and original. It is bad to make what people have seen before and true geniuses can diverge from the pack, see things in a different light, and don’t need to follow trends.

Except we can take it too far.

Something truly original would be unrelatable. Something perfectly unpredictable would be boring.

It is the job of the author not to just bewilder the reader. A writer gives enough information that they think they know where it is going, but leaves out enough for them not to be sure.

A common tactic is to start out a book without explaining the situation and hoping the reader will keep going until he understands it. But if he doesn’t understand what he doesn’t understand, and if he doesn’t think there will be an answer, he just won’t commit to it.

Similar to giving a child a challenge, if it is too easy she will be bored. If it is too hard, she will give up. The readers should have doubt as to outcome, but not only should they still be trying to predict what it’s going to be, but they should have an idea of what it would want to be.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

5 Abilities of a Great Writer

During college, I often had to read three plays a week. Considering most of them were six hours long, hundreds of pages, and practically the same plot, I often didn’t read three plays a week, if you catch my drift.

My professor, a 70 year old man obsessed with the “abnormal” (one of those people who refused to like anything mainstream or modern), would often give us terrible plays, praising those that deliberately meant nothing (Ionesco’s early work) and criticized those that tried to be a real metaphor for something (Ionesco’s later work). He told us very frankly that it is not about whether or not we like it. He also went on to say that it wasn’t always about what the playwright said it was.

“The author doesn’t know what it’s about,” he told us.

Well, you can probably see the problem with that. When we are trying to judge quality, when we are sitting there, trying to understand why this play is “better” than that one, how disregarding if we like it and what the author intended on doing pretty much removes any standards we can have for what is “good” and what isn’t.

So I asked him. “How do I know if it is a well-made play or not?” A loaded question because I already knew that he was a reputation junky. He told me that I would learn with time. A copout. He proceeded to explain to me that he would never give me a bad play to read. Having been under his study for two years, I distinctly disagreed.

I wanted to impress him. I wanted to show him I was an experienced playwright and spent the first half of my degree attempting to understand what he wanted. But I came to realize, after he praised some for things that he disparaged others for, he was very simply a man about appearances. He liked works based on who told him to. I could never impress him because no matter how I changed what I did, being a fan of a student isn’t the same as being a fan of Kafka.

The hardest part of being a “good” writer is understanding what good writing is. Generally when asked, people give vague answers, or worse, so specific ones that it’s almost inane. Anywhere from “writing that makes me feel,” to “stories that don’t start with the protagonist waking up,” could be the response. When trying to improve ourselves, it’s a little hard if we don’t know what improvement is or how to achieve it.

There are many things that a good writer will be able to do. Here are five.

1. Have the reader doubt the protagonist will succeed (even though you fully intend him to.)

Aristotle defined tension as doubt of outcome. The problem with fiction today is that everyone expects the main character to get what he wants in the end, to live, and to prove himself right. It is easy to defy this expectation by just having him fail. What is hard, however, is to have the reader honestly unsure if the protagonist will win until the moment he actually does. It is important, and harder, to keep the balance. The reader will be most entertain if he really isn’t sure of the ending, but still has an idea. If he’s not convinced of failure or success, he’ll keep going to the end.

2. Have foreshadowing that is obvious (but only after the fact.)

An important element of a story is the foreshadowing. It gives little hints of the resolution throughout the book, leading the reader to treat it like a puzzle that could be solved, even if they didn’t.

The hard part of foreshadowing is to make it not look artificially jammed in there or being too good of a hint and leading the outcome to be foreseen.

The best kind of hints are the ones the reader doesn’t recognize until after he knows the answer. Foreshadowing that confuses the audience, is distracting, or is just too obvious doesn’t really achieve its goal. It is often best ignored and used more like an alibi: something that seems unimportant but can be used to prove that it was the author’s intention the whole time.

3. Have clear reasoning for every action in the story (but the reader doesn’t notice.)

Take a piece of writing you consider “bad” and look at it. Is it obvious what the author is trying to do? Bad rhyming is bad because the only motivation was to rhyme. Descriptions that are transparent—when she describes his glistening abs, it’s obvious she just wants to say, “look how sexy”—dialogue that is too on-the-nose, and events that are more useful than believable, bring the reader out of the world.

When someone dissects a story, it is important that the writer’s motivation is there. If a person trying to understand why an author did something can’t figure it out, it looks more like that creator was just winging it. However, a casual reader shouldn’t be thinking about those things. He should be absorbed in the world and not considering, “Well, clearly they’re getting in an argument so that he’ll storm off and be available for capture.”

A great writer has a reason for doing everything that he does, but doesn’t broadcast it.

4. Prove your point (without the reader realizing you had one.)

“Your point,” could be anywhere to “solve the problems of global warming,” to “look how cool India Jones is.” In any case, the writer wants the reader to understand something about the fictional world, real world, or character and does his best to illustrate that.

We all have had the concept of the “theme” and “moral implications” repeatedly smashed into our skulls, but during English classes, how often was it easy to tell what the author was getting at? Sometimes, very. And how often did the students ever take that book seriously? (Or any book seriously?)

People don’t like being hit with the theme stick. People don’t like being told how they should feel. People don’t like having things spelled out for them, evidenced now by your current hostility. Writer’s have lots of points to make, and good ones make it without even informing the reader they were trying.

5. Give the characters what you want them to have (but make punish them for it.)

Both the reader and the writer have something in common (if they like the book): they want the characters to be happy, special, and victorious. But the author, being like a god, can give him anything they want.

If the writer does this too readily, the reader will suddenly turn on the character. He will go from relating to or rooting for the protagonist to feeling in competition with him. The trick to writing an interesting book is to make the reader want the character to be happy by making him unhappy.

Characters who seem to be graced by the gods remind the audience of the god behind it. They are brought back to the memory that they are reading something fictional. Then there comes the problem of unfair riches. The same mentality that leads a brother to complain when his sister gets ten bucks until both get neither, the reader will turn on the protagonist.

It is tricky business because the more we make the characters miserable, the more the reader is miserable – too miserable, and they won’t like the book, but too happy and they’ll be bored. So the trick is to make the protagonist successful and special, but make him miserable for it until the very end. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Way to Write a Movie

I had a very specific learning obstacle during my high school years; I thought the suggestion of change meant that I was doing it wrong.

Now as I look back on those years, I don't believe I misunderstood my teachers intentions. Though statements such as "learn the rules before you learn to break them" repeated through every English and creative writing class I've been to, though they tried to convince us that they only wanted us to be more open to wider styles, the suggestion of "don't use adverbs" can only be taken one way: You use too many. Don't.

It makes sense I would have an abrasion to someone telling me a) I was wrong, b) I have to do it "this" way, and c) these rules are not true for certain people - just the terrible ones. That being said, I've also find that when I consciously choose to disregard the intention behind "this is the right way," many suggestions open up to usability.

What I have here is not the way to write a movie. This is not the best or an infamous or even a fail-proof way. At certain times, it may cause more problems than it helps. But that doesn't mean it's not a good way, a usable way, or in fact, a way to plan a movie.

The Beginning-

This introduces the five elements of a story: the plot, the characters, the setting, the theme, and the tone, gives the reader something to want, and foreshadow the problem and resolution.

We meet the protagonist and are introduced to 1) his super objective, 2) the flaw that is keeping him from achieving his super objective, and 3) the quality that will lead him to success in the end.

The beginning establishes the rules of the world, especially those that will be important to the succession of events. It also indicates what sort of voice the story will have, if it is going to be dark, humorous, casual, poetic, etc., hinting to the audience what they should expect.

Generally speaking, the beginning is a look into the stable life of the protagonist before his world is shaken by the inciting event. Sometimes, the writer may choose to take a glimpse into the future or the past, or even jump straight to the abnormality. No matter what the events are, they show the important five elements.

This first section should also introduce an objective for the reader to have, promising to maybe deliver by the end of the story. Things like the protagonist falling in love, achieving his dreams, having justice on an antagonist (or just extremely obnoxious character), or even for the reader to find out a secret the movie conceals. The introduction of this reader's goal should be out front. The audience should expect this satisfactory end (but have doubt they may actually get it.)

Lastly, there should be hints how the movie will be resolved this early on, especially those that are affected by the characters' personalities and the setting as I have already said. Though the writer does not always know what the resolution will be when he starts, one of the intentions of the second draft will be to insert foreshadowing that ties the whole movie together.

At the end of the beginning is the inciting event. Most describe this as the moment in which the protagonist is forced (with the highest magnitude possible) into action. Considering, however, how often the character is not aware of the conflict until long after (The Lion King), or the main characters already know of the problem (the play Rabbit Hole), it can often make pinpointing that moment hard. When I say the inciting event, I mean the moment in which the audience is introduced to the main conflict, not the protagonist.

The story is about the solution to the problem. The theme is a vague and large picture issue, the plot is the contextual conflict. For instance, a theme would be, "how academia destroys the moral of artists," the plot is, "a student film-maker has to decide between making the film of his dreams or the film that gets the grade." The combination of the two is the problem of the film, introduced at the inciting event, which the resolution will then answer.

The Middle-

The middle of the story's main point is to prove that the problem is hard to solve.

The scenes should up the stakes and make it more important that the protagonist succeeds - to the audience and to the characters, and sometimes to the world itself. Show what will happen if he fails.

There are usually three disasters, often caused by the protagonist trying to fix the problem. These disasters bring to light the possible repercussions.

Bring promises and doubt of if the reader will get what they want. The more the audience is frustrated by the events, the more the jackass gets his way, the more that the hero is separated from the heroine, the more an artist is criticized, the greater the release when the reader will finally get what they want, especially if they can't be certain they'll get away with it.

Filling conversations with background information and proof of the character's qualities and flaws that add to the story without distracting from the point. The middle is often the best place for giving out the peoples' and the world's history rather than the ending or the beginning for the very simple reason that the ending should be quick paced and filled with action, tying together the rest of story and not adding anything new. As for the beginning, there is a basic rule of thumb - When we don't know the characters, we don't care where their from. When we love them, we want to know everything they've done.

The most creative writing, however, comes from solving problems with the text. A simple problem like, "I don't know why my antagonist is so obsessed with one little boy," can be answered in many scenes. Most of the story is actually solving it's own problems, so the best of reads often come from trying to motivate the characters and solving continuity issues.

The end of the middle happens when the protagonist has a clear head on how to defeat the antagonist and set his plan in motion.

The End-

To prevent Deux Ex Machina, there should be no new information, people, rules, etc. given to the audience that hasn't been foreshadowed. (But it can be new to the characters.)

The ending is relatively quick, but it it should not be easy. The third disaster of the play has led to this climax in which all the elements of the story should tie together.

Once the main character has his goal in sights (whether it be defeating a super villain or over coming stage fright) he has one last surprise conflict before him (he must chase the fleeing man up a tower or sees his judgmental father in the audience.) Finally, the moment before he either succeeds or fails at his goal, there should be a moment in which the audience doubts that he will win. The climax is the moment of victory or loss, most often attributed to something that the main character has either struggled with or took advantage of for the entire film. (Toy Story's Woody is only successful when he gets over his jealousy of Buzz and they work together. Aladdin wins over Jafar by using his intellect.)

Then their is the resolution that introduces the audience to the repercussions of the story, either presenting them to the better life or the tragedy.

An important part of the ending is the theme. The way the climax goes should reflex a point, and not just be that the main character got what he wanted but why and how he got what he wanted. Many endings fall short because they solve the problem in a simple way, not a way that the story has been building on since the beginning.